Time to act

They came across the bridge to Wingfield Park carrying brightly-colored signs shaped like hearts and flowers, lettered with words of profound sadness, bearing witness to those who perished from an overdose of lethal drugs, intentionally or by accident. Their faces revealed the toll substance abuse inflicts every day on Nevadans and their grieving families and friends.

The theme of the event was “Time to Remember, Time to Act” in conjunction with the annual International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31. The event is intended to acknowledge the anguish of family and friends who have lost someone they love to an overdose and to raise awareness of how to prevent it from happening to someone else.

The New York Times has been keeping close tabs on the soaring number of drug deaths in the United States, noting recently that 64,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2016, an increase of more than 22 percent over the previous year. Drug overdose deaths in the United States more than tripled from 1999 to 2015 and are now the leading cause of death for people under age 50. The tragedies continue to mount as fentanyl-related overdoses have risen from 3,000 three years ago to a staggering 20,000 last year.

In the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s first annual surveillance report, the agency estimates that tens of millions of Americans are misusing prescription opioids, sedatives, tranquilizers and stimulants, attributing a large part of the problem to high levels of prescribing. In 2016, for every 100 Americans, prescribers wrote 66.5 opioid and 25.2 sedative prescriptions.

As the opioid epidemic sweeps the country, Nevada is hardly immune. In 2010, there were 19 heroin overdose deaths in our state, rising to 79 just five years later. Opioid-related overdose deaths in Nevada have declined 12 percent since 2010 but still number over 400 a year, according to the state Division of Public and Behavioral Health’s Opioid Surveillance report.

Closer to home, Washoe County’s regional medical examiner’s 2016 Annual Report tells a similar sad story. While overall deaths increased by 11 percent from 2015 to 2016, suicides increased 24 percent in the catchment area of 13 Nevada counties and five in California. Twenty-five percent of accidental deaths were from drug intoxication, as were 12 percent of the suicides.

The report notes a decrease in the overall number of drug deaths in 2016, (110 deaths down from a high of 133 in 2015), but “methamphetamine and heroin remain prevalent and increasingly are being combined with prescription drugs with an end result in death.” It’s frightening to think what could happen if a bad batch of heroin rolls into town.

Advocates and family members are still waiting for a formal declaration that our opioid crisis is a national emergency as recommended by the bipartisan Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. President Trump promised to do so in early August, but his administration has yet to take the formal steps that are required before funding can be released.

Counselors attending the Overdose Awareness observation told me the event was cathartic for many of their clients, although attending it in downtown Reno was impossible for some due to the triggering effect of the neighborhood where they used to score their drugs. It was difficult to watch participants weep as they planted their small signs in the Wingfield lawn and talked about enduring the pain of losing too many friends.

But it was the agony of the mothers that struck me the hardest. One told me she still wakes up every morning with a sharp stab of dread at the prospect of another day without her daughter, even though it’s been seven years. Somehow she makes it through another day, she says, but the pain never goes away.