New face of opioid crisis: Young athletes, housewives, middle-aged dads, DEA head says
While legislators across the nation have recently highlighted the struggles in finding a solution to the opioid epidemic, the problem isn't something new and continues to be at the forefront of education and enforcement by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Cam Strahm, who heads up the DEA for the state of Oregon, said the current epidemic of opioids is different from those in the past because of increases in prescription opioids, heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl and derivatives.
"The opioid crisis goes back to 2008, 2009 when you started seeing an increase in availability, prescribing and prescriptions filled," he said.
While that epidemic occurred throughout the country, it was particularly bad in Florida, where unique circumstances allowed doctors at the time to see a patient, write a prescription for opioids and fill that prescription on-site, said Strahm, a Tualatin resident.
At the moment, the face of the epidemic includes what many Americans don't think of as drug addicts — young athletes, housewives and middle-aged dads.
But one thing remains the same, said Strahm, an Oregeon native: "Those addicted are going to find the easiest, most efficient way to have their addiction relieved."
In recent years, Strahm said there's been an effort by regulators and prescribers to reduce the amount of prescriptions written for opioids with hopes that reducing the availability of the drugs will mean fewer people using them.
For its part, the DEA has been trying to make a dent in those prescription drugs lying around the house by urging residents to drop them off at local police departments twice per year.
"For seven years, (the) DEA has been doing the nation take-back program where, no questions asked, (you can) drop off your unwanted or unused drugs in an effort to reduce availability in the households," said Strahm, who has been with the DEA for 26 years.
Those who are addicted to opioids but who can't get prescriptions filled often look at alternative substances such as heroin or semi-synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, he noted.
While oxycodone is still a preferred drug of choice if it's available, many turn to heroin simply because of its availability and the fact it is often cheaper, said Strahm.
Then comes another problem, heroin addicts are no longer treating pain so much as they are using the drug simply to keep from feeling "sick."
"The DEA's efforts are driven by reducing the availability (of drugs) and bringing those people to justice who are preying on the addicted," he pointed out.
Since a large part of crime — both crimes against people as well as property crimes — is driven by drug use, the DEA wants to reduce the availability of opioids and other drugs, said Strahm.
At the same time, Strahm said the DEA isn't only focused solely on enforcement, noting the agency has a large stake in providing education and partnering with community coalitions such as the anti-substance abuse coalitions Tualatin Together and Tigard Turns the Tide, along with treatment programs, in an effort to curb the repeating cycle of drug abuse.
Still Strahm said a solution to reducing drug abuse is a little trickier, noting that former Acting DEA Director Chuck Rosenberg once pointed out, "We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem."
Opioid numbers for Washington County
• Opioid overdoses drive almost all after-hours calls to Washington County drug teams.
• Overdose calls have increased by 13 percent since 2016-17, many of them related to opioid use.
• At least 40 inmates in the Washington County Jail are detoxing from opioid addiction.
• 20 percent of high school seniors have received prescriptions for opioids to relieve pain.
Sources: U.S. DEA, Washington County Sheriff's Department, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici roundtable discussion in Beaverton.