The opioid crisis claimed more than 1,500 lives in 2017 in the state of Kentucky. Fortunately, a number of statewide and community driven efforts have begin to make a difference for residents, with increased treatment centers and law enforcement leading the charge. Here, we’ve collected some of the latest stories and updates from the state of Kentucky in fighting the addiction crisis.
Overdose cases in one Northern Kentucky hospital have begun to plummet for the first time in years thanks to statewide efforts. St. Elizabeth, a hospital with multiple locations in the Northern Kentucky area, recorded only about 1,000 overdose cases in 2018, a sharp reduction from the 2,000 cases treated in 2017. While this number is still higher than the state would like, it shows just how efforts have made an impact in the community.
Since 2011, St. Elizabeth has tracked overdose cases. The total number of overdoses treated at the hospital has increased year over year since 2011, starting at roughly 252 and reaching a peak of 2,061 in 2017. Northern and eastern Kentucky were at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic that began spreading in the 2000’s. From 2015 to 2018, emergency staff at St. Elizabeth’s were treating over 1,000 cases per year.
As overdose cases have dropped, St. Elizabeth and other hospitals have not let up in the fight to push back against addiction within their communities. St. Elizabeth added a program, similar to one popular in California, that links overdose patients in its emergency rooms with peer recovery specialists who help connect them with further treatment opportunities.
Known as the ER Bridge Team, this program has been integral in over 700 cases involving substance use disorders. Fortunately too, the state has provided funding for more substance use disorder treatment facilities. The region now has more methadone clinics and more doctors able to prescribe buprenorphine and naltrexone. The opioid reversal agent Naloxone has also become more widely distributed.
The Northern Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy recently received $150,000 in private grant money to help launch new services for addicted residents and their families. The grant comes from the Funders Response to the Heroin Epidemic, a collaboration of private donors dedicated to helping fight the opioid epidemic in Kentucky.
The money will be used to cover four new positions intended to help families of people struggling with addiction. This includes a social worker in charge of directing people from the criminal justice system to treatment facilities. This position is based on the Alexandria Angel Program, which runs a similar set up. This new position will also focus on spreading the effort to other communities.
In March, the Northern Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy will head up the addiction hotline and Quick Response Teams. Several police and fire agencies will join the quick response team and will collaborate with addiction counselors to quickly arrive on the scene of addiction related emergencies to offer help. Ideally, this response team will be able to offer direct help to families in need, instead of simply leaving them in the hospital.
This new money will also be used to establish an advocacy office for families of addicted residents, focusing on helping these individuals navigate the sometimes complicated criminal justice system. The advocacy office will also help educate members on the Matthew Casey Wethington Act of 2004, also known as Casey’s Law. Charlotte Wethington of Kenton County, Casey's mother, has pushed for greater awareness of Casey's Law since it was created, saying that if something like it had been in place, her son might still be alive today.
The Angel Initiative is a program started by the Kentucky State Police in 2016 with one goal in mind: to save lives. Under this initiative, anyone battling addiction in Kentucky can come to Kentucky State Police Stations and get help finding a treatment center, no questions asked. If you or a loved one find yourself battling to escape the chains of addiction, you can call ahead or arrive at one of 16 KSP posts across the Commonwealth and meet with an “Angel” who will help refer you to quality treatment centers and health professionals. Since March of 2018, more than a dozen people have received help from the Kentucky State Police through this program. According to the brochure, the program is not about getting soft on crime, but getting smart on rehabilitation.
“As crazy as it sounds — and I know it does — the meth helped me get off heroin,” says Amanda Grant, former drug user and current member of non-residential treatment program for former inmates. As a single mom, Grant’s former heroin addiction was growing out of hand and interfering with her ability to raise her kids. However, kicking the habit was even more difficult. So to cope, she took up meth as an upper.
The first time she took it, she was able to keep working and go without sleep or food for nearly four days. Says Grant: “I wasn’t even getting high anymore, I was just staying up and keeping it going. Being a mom, keeping a house going and a full-time job with overtime, getting everything done …“For me, meth was a simple solution. I can do one shot of meth a day, instead of several a day of heroin. But I just continued, and it became a cycle.”
However, just like with heroin, methamphetamine addiction in Kentucky gradually led to more lapses in responsibility as Amanda became more focused on finding her next fix. Through her IV use, Amanda contracted Hepatitis C and eventually wound up in jail. From there, she found her way to the Shepherd House, a non-residential treatment program for former inmates. However, after a relapse following her time in treatment, Amanda wound up back in jail and with Child Protective Services at her home.
Fortunately, group sessions and time spent in treatment have had an impact on her approach to recovery. Since November, Amanda has been sober and intends to stay that way. “For the first time in almost 10 years, I’m completely out of the court system. I’m done, and I’m free, and it’s priceless,” Grant says. “If I get stressed out, and feel like I can’t get done what I need to get done, that’s when I want to use. So I just take it day by day. If I can’t get to something today, it’ll be there tomorrow. That’s all I can do.”
Medical marijuana legalization could be on the horizon for Kentucky residents, many of whom are eagerly clamoring for its approval. However, there is still legislative push back that has yet to be overcome. After all, Kentucky is now in the minority when it comes to medical marijuana legislation, with 33 other states having passed bills in favor of legalization.
The argument comes down to whether legalized marijuana will do more harm or hurt to the Kentucky community. Taylor Everett and his wife Cassie are an example of residents who believe marijuana legalization is the key to overcoming debilitating seizures. For years they have tried various medications and supplements to help Cassie, but the seizures have never fully gone away and the medication has taken its toll on her memory and motor skills.
While they haven’t tried marijuana yet, thousands of testimonials and videos showing the drug’s promise have given them hope. Representative Kimberly Moser, chair of the Health and Family Services Committee in Kentucky, has had years of experience with stories such as these. However, she still believes in taking legalization slowly, allowing for more research and proof before opening the floodgates to an industry that is still nascent.
Says Moser: "I just want to slow down a little bit, make sure we're doing things right. We have medications, and there are very strict guidelines in terms of what the uses are, and we just don't have that with medical marijuana right now." Research has been limited due to the fact that marijuana is still a Schedule I drug, sharing the same classification as drugs like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.
On the other hand, there are lawmakers such as representative Jason Nemes, one of four current lawmakers sponsoring a bill that would legalize medical marijuana. Nemes believes that legalization could possibly help with the opioid overdose rate in the state. "I know it can help some people. Let their doctors decide." Nemes said. "If it needs to be anywhere in the United States, it needs to be here in the Bluegrass.”
Evidence from multiple studies on marijuana legalization has pointed out a number of positive benefits. In states with medical marijuana access, overdose death rates are, on average, 25% lower than states with no legal access to marijuana. Legal access to medical marijuana has been associated with 23% reduction in opioid dependence and 15% fewer treatment admissions.
In addition to being a feasible, naturally introspective substitute for more dangerous substances like opioids and methamphetamine, cannabis has some key benefits for treating withdrawal. Also, marijuana sales in Washington generated $315 million in tax revenues in the 2016-2017 fiscal year with 25% of tax revenue being given to substance use disorder treatment, education, and prevention.
The bill is currently being proposed in the Kentucky legislature: HB136.
Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton recently hosted a free showing of the film “Beautiful Boy” in order to raise awareness and help open discussions about combating the addiction crisis in Kentucky. Speaking to the crowd before the film began, Gorton stated that it was time to marshal the resources of the community in order to make a real impact on the crisis.
In an interview with WUKY, Mayor Gorton spoke candidly about what her administration’s all-encompassing approach to fighting the opioid epidemic will be. "What is going to change is... we're going to go about this in a big partnership way throughout our community. We've never done it this way before. We will not only have public safety folks at the table. We'll have the medical community... addiction experts, mental health experts, faith community, neighborhoods. It's touching everyone."
Don’t Let Them Die Campaign
State efforts to combat the scourge of fentanyl include public awareness and naloxone distribution drives. The Kentucky sponsored “Don’t Let Them Die” campaign offers information and resources on substance use disorders, drug treatment options, and naloxone, the overdose reversing agent that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. As part of “Find Help Now KY”, the campaign also invited high school students to partake in a video competition highlighting the severity of addiction for students.
Meth on the Rise in Kentucky
While Louisville deals with an opioid crisis that claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people in 2016, a new threat in the form of highly synthesized and purified crystal meth is now rearing its head. While meth never disappeared, it has made a resurgence in Kentucky where meth-related deaths more than tripled from 2013 to 2016, totaling 252 casualties. In 2017 alone, there were more than 100 overdose deaths in Jefferson County involving meth or a mixture of it and other drugs. Kentucky isn’t alone in this: across the nation, deaths related to stimulant overdoses rose by more than one third between 2015 and 2016, totaling 7500 deaths.
Drug and alcohol addictions are some of the most destructive forces in the world today, especially if the addiction is to stimulant drugs. The process of healing ourselves, our families, our communities, and the world at large, starts with recognizing the danger that these substances represent. At Landmark Recovery, we believe in creating a supportive network of love and access to resources that can help you break free from the chains of addiction. Visit our website to learn more about drug and alcohol rehab.