Painkillers and heroin: A look at the opioid epidemic


In Minnesota, 572 people died last year from a drug overdose, more than four times the number of people killed 15 years ago.

More than half of those overdose deaths were caused by prescription drugs, and a total of 216 people were killed by painkillers – often referred to as opioids.

"With all the attention on this issue over the past several years, it’s disappointing that we have not been more effective in slowing down this epidemic," Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said when those figures were released.

Look nationally, and you see a similar trend. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch noted Tuesday 3.8 million Americans – going as young as 12 years old – are misusing prescription painkillers.

"That is a stunning figure," she said, "but it hardly conveys the widespread pain and heartbreak that the rash of heroin and opioid abuse has caused in far too many communities throughout the United States."

Opioid Awareness Week

It's with that in mind that the White House announced this week as "Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week," while noting more Americans die as a result of drug overdose than in traffic crashes.

As part of the proclamation, President Barack Obama called such addiction a "disease," and is asking for more funding ($1.1 billion to be exact) to help get everyone access to help.

That includes expanding treatment for people dealing with addiction; implementing programs to prevent addiction; finding ways to get the overdose-reversing naloxone in more first respodners' hands; and improving how often and why doctors prescribe prescription painkillers, which are often addictive and can lead to heroin use.

The CDC says more than 45 percent of people who used heroin were also addicted to prescription painkillers.

"Too often, we expect people struggling with substance use disorders to self-diagnose and seek treatment," Obama said in the proclamation. "And although we have made great strides in helping more Americans access care, far too many still lack appropriate, evidence-based treatment."

Fentanyl is one of the drugs

Specifically mentioned is fentanyl, which can be imported from China and has been attributed to a high number of overdose deaths recently.

The most high-profile in recent months was Prince, who was found dead of an accidental fentanyl overdose in the elevator of his Paisley Park home.

Fentanyl, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is a synthetic drug that’s more powerful than morphine. It’s usually used to treat patients for “severe pain,” sometimes after a surgery, or to treat some chronic pain.

It’s prescription names are Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze, the institute says. It has at least 10 different street names.

Getting help

There are resources within Minnesota and the U.S. to get help if you're struggling with addiction.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a website that shows residential, outpatient and hospital inpatient treatment program locations.

And the the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) also offers help, and can connect people with resources nearby.

The National Institute of Health has more options here, as well as a guide of what to do if a friend or loved one has a substance abuse problem.

Funding for Minnesota efforts

A couple of Minnesota programs also recently got money to help the effort.

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians will get $13 million from the USDA to do four projects – one of which is a 20,000-square-foot Chemical Dependency Treatment Center, which will include 16 beds, meetings rooms and visitation areas.

Red Lake Department of Public Safety said last year it made more than 140 arrests for possessing and selling drugs, including heroin, meth, cocaine, morphine, pot, and prescription pills. Red Lake was also one of the reservations hit by a multi-state drug trafficking ring (including heroin) that led to 41 people facing federal charges.

In recent years, the number of Red Lake band members who needed to get treatment for opioid addiction has gone up more than 50 percent, Public Safety Director William Brunelle told the Star Tribune at the time.

In addition, the Minnesota Department of Human Services is getting grants to help combat the "worrisome rise in the abuse of prescription drugs," an announcement says.

One of them is a $1.6-million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Human Services. The other is $900,000 over three years from the CDC.

The department will use the money to raise awareness about the dangers of sharing meds, address the over-prescribing of prescriptions, and produce programs for communities and schools.

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