Opioid overdoses on the rise locally
By TRAVIS M. WHITEHEAD
HARLINGEN — A spike in opioid overdose locally reflects a national trend.
The Harlingen Police Department reports the level of overdose cases overall has remained constant the past three years. However, cases of opioid overdose have increased, just as they have across the country.
“Nationally the opiate crisis has been labeled as an epidemic,” Harlingen Police Chief Jeffry Adickes said. “We as a community and police department need to continue to be proactive with our partners to try to minimize the impact on our families and our region.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 1999, less than 5,000 people died from heroin overdose nationwide. By 2017, that number had increased to 15,595.
However, the increase in overdose of opioid painkillers showed an even sharper increase, from almost nothing in 1999 to 29,406 last year.
So why the increase in painkiller overdoses?
That is the right question, one of many.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies assured the medical community patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers. Based on that assurance, health care providers began prescribing them at greater rates.
The result was almost predictable.
“This led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear these medications could indeed be highly addictive,” NIDA says. “Opioid overdose rates began to increase. In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose, including prescription opioids, heroin, and illicitly manufactured Fentanyl.”
NIDA also says that in 2017 about 2 million people in the U.S. suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers, and 591,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder.
Dr. Douglas Meisen, medical director of the Emergency Room at Valley Baptist Medical Center, says he hasn’t seen an increase in opiate overdoses.
“My knowledge of the local patterns here is that there is a readily available cheap Xanax, so there’s a fair number of overdoses on Xanax because of that,” Meisen said. “Anything that’s readily available and cheap tends to be a big problem in that region.”
Cocaine, he said, is also very prevalent. It’s cheap and available.
“A lot of people are using it recreationally at parties, not necessarily intending to overdose,” he said. “Probably more often than not, it’s accidental overdoses with cocaine.”
The Valley AIDS Council says it has seen a mixture of Xanax with amphetamines and opioids.
“Our program is mostly geared toward opioid overdoses,” said Rick Prieto, recovery specialist at VAC.
“You’ll have an opioid with benzodiazepines, which are anti-anxiety medications,” Prieto said. “That makes it very dangerous because opioids slow down breathing and the benzodiazepines will also do that, so you’re really playing with fire.”
He also pointed to the danger when drug mixtures involve amphetamines like Adderall, crystal meth and cocaine.
“Now we’re talking about potential heart problems because you’re basically taking downers with uppers,” he said. “You have one drug, the amphetamine speeding up your heartbeat while the other drugs are suppressing your respiratory system, so it’s dangerous.”
Adickes pointed out the strong correlation between mental health issues and drug overdose.
“A significant amount of the 911 mental health calls we respond to include the management or mismanagement of prescribed and/or illegal drugs or alcohol either intentionally or unintentionally by virtue of the inability to manage them,” Adickes said. “We are very engaged as a police department here with two full-time officers assigned to and funded by Tropical Texas Behavioral Health to respond to persons in crisis.”
He added the department has dedicated a full-time detective to all mental health cases in Harlingen to follow up on 911 calls to support families and reduce repeat calls.
“The proactive investment to support persons in crisis and their families here is very important,” Adickes said. “With regard to responding to persons in mental health crisis by virtue of overdose or mismanagement of legal or illegal drugs, these rank very high nationally in being present in officer-involved shootings.”