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Panel: Sumner not immune from opioid epidemic

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“If we continue to be quiet about it, people will continue to die,” said Project Lifeline Coordinator Steve Shates, Shates was one of several panel members who spoke at a town hall meeting Sept. 7 hosted by the Sumner County Anti-Drug Coalition. TENA LEE
“We are in a continuous state of mourning” over the opiate epidemic gripping our country, Stan Jones of the Drug Enforcement Administration told those who attended a town hall meeting Sept. 7 hosted by the Sumner County Anti-Drug Coalition. TENA LEE

There were more opioid prescriptions written in Sumner County in 2016 than there are residents - a staggering 199,327 prescriptions in a county of 176,000 residents.

In 2015, the latest year the Tennessee Department of Health has available statistics for overdose deaths, 18 Sumner County residents died from opioid use - four from heroin overdoses.

"There's a major crisis happening and we need the community's support," Sumner County Anti-Drug Coalition Executive Director Liz Johnson said during a town hall meeting Sept. 7 at Hendersonville High School.

Around 50 people attended the town hall meeting to learn more about opioid use and abuse from a panel that included representatives from local law enforcement agencies, the Sumner County Recovery Court program, the Sumner County Board of Education and several drug treatment and rehabilitation facilities.

Opioids are a type of drug that include pain relievers available legally by prescription like hydrocodone, codeine and morphine, the illegal drug heroin and fentanyl;, a synthetic and highly toxic opiate. Because they can produce a euphoria as well as pain relief, prescription opioids can be abused.

"Ultimately, we wanted people to know what opioids are, the risk of taking them even though they may be prescribed by a doctor, and the impact their misuse has on the entire community, not on just one segment of the population," said Johnson.

From the 12-year-old who has a sports injury to the elderly seeking pain relief, just about anyone can be at risk for addiction to pain killers, she added.

Johnson noted that because of its overdose numbers and the number of prescriptions written, Sumner was one of seven counties chosen to receive a state grant this year for opiate use education and prevention.

"This opiate epidemic is not new," said Steve Shates, an HHS graduate and former heroin addict who set the stage for the hour-long discussion on Sept. 7.

Shates, a coordinator with Project Lifeline, a program of the department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, says he works to destigmatize addiction.

"If we continue to be quiet about this, people will continue to die," said Shates.

Dr. Sam McMaster, executive VP and chief clinical officer of JourneyPure, a drug addiction treatment center in Brentwood, asked for a show of hands from those who know someone who has died from a drug overdose. Several hands shot up across the high school auditorium.

If one takes opioids for more than seven to 10 days, they're likely to have a chemical reaction where they need more, McMaster said.

Other panel members included Linda McCullough of Bradford Health Services, a drug and alcohol treatment center; Tracye Bryant of the Recovery Court of Sumner County; Sumner County Sheriff Sonny Weatherford; Sumner County Schools Nurse Program Manager Lisa Herren; Amara Schweinberg of Cumberland Heights; MPO Thomas Holman and Lt. Terry Smith of the Hendersonville Police Department; and Stan Jones with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

McCullough said her facility is seeing more and more young adults ages 19-29 who are addicted to opiates. Many were prescribed painkillers for procedures like wisdom teeth extraction and found they wanted more. Once addicted, they found heroin is a cheaper alternative, she said.

Forty percent of those admitted to the Sumner County Jail in 2016 had to go through detox, according to Weatherford.

"It's a problem that affects the whole community," he said. Weatherford noted that 24-hours-a-day residents can bring prescription drugs to the sheriff's office for disposal. This year alone over 900 pounds of medication were thrown out, according to Weatherford.

Hendersonville Police Department MPO Thomas Holman said the department has made arrests recently for illegal substances like heroin and fentanyl.

DEA Agent Jones explained the lure of the more dangerous substances, added they are cheaper and more powerful than prescription drugs.

Jones explained that the street value of a Schedule II drug is around a dollar a milligram - or $1 million for a kilogram.

"The most valuable commodity on earth is an opiate," said Jones.

The highly toxic Fentanyl, on the other hand, can be bought for $5,000 for a kilogram - making it attractive to those who sell illegal drugs to blend it with other drugs.

A lethal dose can be as small as the size of two granules of salt, added the DEA agent.

Jones said the opioid crisis is a national one people that need to be aware of.

"Every three weeks we have a body count that equals what we had on 9/11," he said. "We are in a continuous state of mourning over this now in our nation."

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