Knoxville, in eastern Tennessee, is a manufacturing and wholesaling center in the south. The opioid epidemic throughout the country cuts deep into this Appalachian region community and highlights the sudden and impactful increase in prescription opioid and heroin abuse over the last several years.
Explore the Data on Drug Abuse in Tennessee
In the first six months of 2016, 118 people died of an overdose in Knox County. The local prosecutor’s office also counted at least one opioid-related overdose across 21 different zip codes during the same timeframe. Knoxville’s police department recognizes a 1600% increase in heroin-related incidents over the past five years. In 2015, the department handled 69 heroin-related calls.
In 2014, the most recent data available in the state, 1,263 residents died as the result of an opioid overdose. While opioid antagonists are more widely available than they were in 2014, the Knox County statistics from 2016 may indicate an even higher statewide death rate for the 2016 year.
The epidemic does not only affect teens and adults capable of making their own decisions. In Tennessee, nearly 1,500 babies were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome in 2015. The condition occurs when babies experience withdrawal after receiving opioids in the womb through a mother.
Prescription Opioid Abuse in Tennessee
A high death rate always correlates to an even higher user rate. In 2015, Tennessee physicians wrote the second highest number of opioid prescriptions per capita in the country at 1.18 prescriptions per person or 7,800,947 prescriptions. If a patient does not carefully manage prescription drug use and weans him or herself off the medication as soon as possible, a drug addiction can begin to take root.
The national opioid epidemic crosses stereotypical drug boundaries. Opioid addiction has the potential to affect anyone, but certain conditions in Knoxville may make the area more prone to increased rates of use and overdose-related deaths. The area employs many blue-collar workers who engage in physical labor on a daily basis. Those working in warehouses and out in the field are subject to an increased risk of on-the-job injuries. They are also highly likely to receive some form of an opioid prescription for short and long term pain management.
Obtaining Opioids in Tennessee
On the prescription side of the opioid epidemic in Tennessee, most users obtain their narcotic of choice for free from friends and family members. Those without a legitimate prescription and an amenable source may resort to purchasing or stealing Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Methadone, Fentanyl, and other opioids from people they know.
When physicians no longer hand out prescriptions for high power narcotics, people who rely on that pain-dulling sensation turn to friends or family members and then to heroin. Heroin is a much more powerful drug. Unfortunately, it’s also easier to access and more affordable than prescription painkillers.
The Personal Fight for Many in Knoxville
For many in Knoxville, the epidemic hits close to home. The Knoxville police chief, David Rausch, spoke at a state task force meeting in February 2017 about the personal fight that the opioid epidemic creates. A Knoxville officer succumbed to the battle and resorted to confiscating drugs from dealers to maintain a personal habit. The police chief and his spouse currently support his stepson’s infant child because both parents are addicted to drugs. The 6-month-old is also drug dependent.
One drug user revealed his story to a Knoxville reporter. The man successfully quit drugs once, but a surgery and subsequent opioid prescription opened the door again. Today, the man trades in illegal goods to fuel his habit. Sixteen felony theft counts and a stint in jail did little to change the man’s habits.
The grip heroin and opioid drugs place on their users is intense and sometimes all-powerful. Detox is only the first step in recovery, and many users return to old habits after returning to familiar environments and social groups.
Combating Addiction in Knoxville, Tennessee
In the war on drugs, jail time fails to rehabilitate individuals struggling with substance abuse. Outside help and support gives users an opportunity to rewire their brains to stop seeking out drugs. Knoxville recognizes the difference between legal accountability and rehabilitation. The police department and other organizations use overdose antidotes, drug courts, public outreach, and rehabilitation facilities to help users receive the support they need. The Knox County Recovery Court, a type of drug court/treatment program, helps users stay out of jail and receive the help they need.
The state of Tennessee has also passed several laws to combat prescription-related opioid abuse. In 2015, the state tightened restrictions on the management of pain clinics and repealed an act that put the power of choosing opioids in the hands of patients. As physicians restrict access to opioids, however, studies—including one from The New England Journal of Medicine—highlight the relationship between prescription opioid abuse and heroin use. Opioid addicts will do almost anything to maintain the habit, including going to veterinarian’s offices and obtaining pet prescriptions.
For almost two years, the police department in Knoxville has carried Naloxone (an opioid overdose antidote) to administer to overdose victims in the field. Since the start of the program, officers have saved 50 lives in emergency situations. The team receives overdose-related calls almost every day now.
Many rehabilitation programs in the local area must put users in need of help on waiting lists. They do not have enough beds to support medical detoxification and support for patients addicted to heroin and other strong opioids. Aside from local programs, those committed to seeking help often explore out-of-state programs that offer detox, therapy, and reintegration opportunities.
The Knoxville and Tennessee opioid problems strongly correlate to liberal prescription writing policies. Now that so many people are hooked, the state must find sustainable ways to help families, children, and adults find a path away from drugs.
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