KOLD INVESTIGATES: Opioids take their toll in Pima County - Tucson News Now

KOLD INVESTIGATES: Opioids take their toll in Pima County

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Statistics for 2017, show the number of opioid deaths in Pima County has exceeded 280 for the first time and has grown steadily since 2010 when it was in the low 200's.

Pima County is not calling it a crisis, but is calling it an epidemic and cause for concern.

In a map released by the county last year, it shows the hotspots for hospital admissions range from the poorer areas of the west side to the more affluent areas in the lower Foothills to even the retirement community of Green Valley.

There are no areas that are immune.

"It doesn't matter if you're rich, poor, black, white, opioids can be dangerous," said Thom Duddy, a communications specialist from Adapt Pharma, which advocates for the use of naloxone to revive people who have overdosed. "People can overdose from them, become addicted to them."

And some of those folks are friends and neighbors.

"I hear story after story, I was injured playing soccer or football and I couldn't get off this medication," he said.

A noted pain doctor, Dr. Bennet Davis from Sierra Tucson agrees.

"Too many people taking too many opioids, Dr. Davis said. "We need to get them off."

While there is very little disagreement with that, there is more disagreement on how to do it.

The 2018/19 federal budget sets $13 billion to fight the addiction and it will be predominately used for treatment, pain management and the use of naloxone.

"I am very grateful that money is being made available to treat addiction," Dr. Davis said. "Addiction has been underfunded in our country and that's part of the problem, no question."

The state of Arizona, following a special legislative session this year issued new policy guidelines which will limit the number of pills and the amount of time a doctor can prescribe opioids.

Duddy says Arizona doctors issue 80,000 opioid prescriptions a week which translates into 4.2 million prescriptions a year, nearly one for every man, woman and child in the state.

"So there is a supply out there which reaches all corners, all facets of people in our community," Duddy said.

Which explains why the number of deaths has continued to rise.

"More common than automobile deaths, more common than other deaths," said Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess. "And that didn't use to be the case."

The Pima County Attorney's office is taking it a step further. While treatment is the preferred option, getting people into treatment and out of prison has become a primary goal.  

Seven years ago, County Attorney Barbara LaWall began a program called "alternative to prison", or DTAP, Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison Program.

People who are in caught in non-violent and non-dangerous felonies, who are addicted to drugs, are offered a choice, go to prison or go through the DTAP program.

63 people choose DTAP in 2017.

The program "reduces recidivism, they reduce the number of cases that have to be prosecuted, they reduce the number of people sent to prison," said Amelia Cramer, Chief Deputy in the Pima County Attorney's office. "It's a total cost reduction as well as saving lives."

"They now have a medical problem that's driving their criminal activity," Cramer said. "If we can intervene and resolve the medical problem, we can cease the criminal activity and drug use."

Recidivism, or repeat offenders, is half of those who choose to go to prison instead. 

The office says DTAP has saved taxpayers $4 million.

As for saving lives, 57-year-old Debra Black and 26-year-old Jacob Kirk will agree to that.

Kirk was offered the option two years ago and took the program as opposed to three years in prison for drug possession.

"If I go back, I could die," he said. "I had a couple of overdoses, but I didn't die." He started taking drugs when he was 14 and gradually progressed to pills, opioids. "I liked percoset, some vicodin, did some Adderall." 

"I wanted to be the cool guy, I thought it was fun for a little bit," Kirk said. "Then drugs became a priority and kind of took over my life."

But after he faced prison time, he made a choice which changed his life. 

He now works full time, helps others and has a brighter future. However, his criminal record is something he needs to overcome.

"It's something that never goes away," he said. "You have that record for life."

But with support, "you have a whole team behind you," he said, "to help you stay clean."

"I think the program helped me a lot," he said "Because I would never have gone to rehab on my own."

Debra Black is a mother, grandmother, and a life long addict. 

"I've been an addict and alcoholic since I was nine years old," she said. "And I'm 57 now."

She would get high and drunk with her parents when she was a child.. Her father taught her to be a "functional addict." she said. 

"This was something that we kept in the house, we didn't talk to other people, you didn't go to school and talk about it," she said.

Black did not believe it was out of the ordinary until she was an adult. 

She held a variety of jobs, "although none very long" she said. But she could get through the day and she could make sure her children were fed.

"My kids didn't go without food because I would go to the store every night and shop lift food to make sure they ate," she said. "They had food, I had drugs."

She became homeless once the children were grown and that's when trouble with the law began. It wasn't until she faced prison time and her daughter threatened to not let her see her grandchild, that she opted to clean up.

DTAP gave her the chance two years ago.

She holds a part time job, "the first time I've had a job in my life where I go to work clean and sober." Black added, "I love it." 

"I'm going to be okay. I'm going to stay clean and sober and that's the only way I can thank DTAP for what the did for me and my family," she said. "And the only way to show them I love them is to stay that way."

It's likely to take a combination of efforts to stem the tide. 

"We're seeing an escalation in death due to opioids as we try to intervene," Dr. Davis said. "Which is telling us there's something not right with our intervention."

He believes a target, besides adequate funding, needs to be found in mental health. 

"Once they're on pill island, they're stuck on pill island and you can't just say swim," he said. "But that's what we're doing."

Meantime, America is awash in a sea of opioids. 

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