The scourge of the heroin epidemic has claimed more Ohio lives than the Vietnam War. Every week, our state loses an average of 23 sons, daughters, wives, husbands, mothers and fathers to heroin overdoses.
Here at the Statehouse, we're ramping up the fight against the heroin epidemic. My colleague Senator John Eklund has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 319, to cover prescription restrictions, expand naloxone availability, fund methadone clinics and establish new licensing measures. The governor’s office has also played a role in fighting the epidemic by issuing a number of opioid prescription guidelines to prevent over-prescribing. At the local level, many courts are finding new ways to treat those with drug convictions less like criminals and more like addicts in need of treatment. We must tackle rehabilitation and prevention with equal determination if we hope to overcome the tragedy of opioid overdoses.
In the last several years, a new menace has appeared on the drug front— fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is usually prescribed to manage pain in advanced cancer patients. While heroin production requires large swaths of land, the fentanyl circulating on the streets is produced in illegal labs in Mexico and China. It's 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin and is commonly mixed with heroin to give it a bigger “kick" with often lethal results. The recent spike of fentanyl-related deaths speaks to the growing severity of the epidemic. Between 2013 and 2014, there were 502 fentanyl-related deaths. Between 2014 and 2015 that number nearly doubled to 998 deaths.
Tackling the growing fentanyl problem begins with cracking down on the over-prescribing of opioids. Research indicates that one in five people who died of fentanyl overdoses had an opioid prescription at the time of death. Stricter prescribing guidelines proposed by Senator Eklund are aimed at increasing the oversight of pharmacy technicians and restricting the number of opiate pills dispensed in a single prescription – sharply curbing the chances of an opioid habit forming before the prescription runs out.
We must also create more opportunities for recovery by making life-saving naloxone readily available to loved ones of addicts for use in the case of an overdose. Senate Bill 319 includes funding for Project Dawn, a program that distributes free medical kits containing naloxone to opioid users. The bill also includes funding for clinics that distribute methadone, a drug that reduces the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Working to reduce the stigma around opioid addiction and treating the issue like a disease instead of a criminal issue will help empower addicts to get on the road to recovery.
Opioid overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio. The destructive new influence of fentanyl is just one more indicator that we as a state must engage in an all-out attack on the opiate epidemic in Ohio. We can't sit idly by while opiate addiction attacks the health of individuals, undermines the strength of families and unravels the fabric of entire communities. We must act immediately and decisively. I hope you will join me as we work to take Ohio back from the opiate epidemic.