By Denny Barney
Daniel started taking opioids as a “recreational thing” when he was 18, then turned to heroin because it was cheaper and more powerful.
One day he did a shot of heroin at his mom’s house and fell asleep with the needle in his arm.
“My sister came in before she went to school to ask me if I had lunch money to give her,” Daniel said, “and she [saw] the needle hanging out of my arm and screamed and ran out of the room.”
His younger sister. The one that looked up to him.
“I used to judge those people and then I became one of them,” Daniel said.
You may not know anyone with a heroin addiction, but there’s probably someone in your social circle who is misusing prescription pills. For many, it starts with taking pain medication exactly as prescribed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called the opioid crisis the worst drug overdose epidemic in our history. In June, Governor Ducey said the crisis constitutes a statewide emergency, and in the days that followed, issued an executive order requiring better data tracking and sharing among health and law enforcement agencies, including those in Maricopa County. The goal: follow the crisis in real time and reduce preventable deaths.
The statistics are sobering:
Nationwide, 60,000 deaths from opioid use in 2016.
In Arizona, 790 opioid overdose deaths in 2016, a 74 percent increase over the past four years.
In Maricopa County jails, more than 900 of the approximately 8,000 individuals in custody admit ongoing opioid use.
So what is Maricopa County doing about it?
Limiting overdose deaths: Before his most recent jail stay, Daniel overdosed four times in seven days. He is alive because he received injections of naloxone, an opioid antidote. Governor Ducey made the distribution of naloxone a priority, and Maricopa County Correctional Health Services is using the drug to save lives and put inmates on a path to recovery. In addition, Sheriff Penzone is equipping his deputies with the drug and investing in training so they know how to administer it properly.
Reducing cravings: The transition from incarceration back to the community is a very risky time for individuals. Daniel is one of the first Maricopa County inmates to receive Vivitrol, a drug known to reduce opioid cravings and dull the high that someone receives from taking the drug. The first injection is given in custody, a few days before release. Outside agencies handle subsequent injections. This program is in its infancy. Our Correctional Health team will track outcomes to see if Vivitrol is an effective means of treating this addiction, limiting overdose deaths and preventing people from returning to jail.
Education: The Sheriff appointed former Drug Enforcement Agent Agent Shannon Scheel to lead drug education efforts which include outreach to students with an interactive program developed by the Discovery Channel. The county is also committed to education inside our jails, so we continue to refine substance abuse programs such as MOSAIC, which teach people struggling with addiction the skills to replace their dependency with something positive. Daniel is a recent graduate.
Of course, much is out of our control.
Medical professionals need to be smart about how they prescribe powerful painkillers. A recent CDC report found Maricopa County, and Arizona as a whole, above the national rate for opioid prescriptions.
We need community support, too. Nonprofits and volunteers. Churches and support groups. Employers and landlords willing to give people a chance. Progress isn’t possible if addicts are considered those “other folks.” Separate from us. Not our problem.
For 10 years, Daniel has been in and out of jail. Getting help and then relapsing. Shooting up in the veins of his feet because he couldn’t find another vein that would take the needle. Worrying his mother and sister sick. And of course, not contributing positively to our community.
Maricopa County has developed a wide-ranging response to the opioid crisis. Our hope is to give Daniel and those like him all the tools at our disposal to survive and, hopefully, recover.
Denny Barney is a Gilbert resident and Chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.