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Drug-Related Overdose Deaths Increase in Knox County

KNOXVILLE - The number of overdose deaths for Knox County in 2016 is expected to be the largest ever, according to the Knox County District Attorney General's Office.

The DA's office works closely with the county medical examiner to track the number of overdose deaths. In 2015, the number of confirmed drug-related overdose deaths totaled 170.

So far this year, the DA's office suspects 222 people have died from a drug overdose.

Kyle Hixson, the deputy district attorney general, said seeing that number increase over the months is alarming.

"What's scary, we are using Naloxone. We are using more intensive treatment options. We'll be talking about medication-assisted treatment a lot more in 2017," he said. "It's scary to think what this number would have been had those steps not been taken."

The DA's office has an overdose memorial Christmas tree set up outside their door in the City County Building. Hixson said it memorializes the lives lost and brings attention to the opioid addiction problem in the community.

"There are a lot of families here in Knox County and across the nation who are sitting there with an empty seat at the table, and it doesn't have to be that way," he said.

The opioid issue is a national problem, Hixson said, but its epicenter is Southern Appalachia. Knoxville is one of the largest urban cities in that area, which is why he said the opioid problem has taken off in Knox County.

"It is an extremely difficult drug to break away from, and once people are hooked, they're hooked," Hixson added.

The DA's office is tackling the opioid problem on the backend by using every legal means to prosecute drug dealers, but Hixson said law enforcement, the healthcare industry, and the community need to come together to get illegal prescription pain pills off the streets.

Once that happens, he said the heroin problem may get worse before it gets better.

"We think the heroin problem's bad now," he said. "Wait until we get the illegal prescription drugs off the streets, and then we're really going to see an uptick in heroin."

Prosecutors expect heroin will be the go-to drug for addicts if and when prescription pain pills are no longer available.

"That will be the new battle, and unfortunately, that's going to be a battle that we're fighting for at least the next decade," Hixson said.

The Metro Drug Coalition is one of the local groups joining in to combat the number of overdose deaths and illegal drugs.

"We have to be out in the community more and sharing the message and making sure that people know the dangers of drugs and alcohol and how they can affect someone," said Deborah Huddleston, media relations coordinator for the coalition.

The group works with school-age children to teach them at a young age about the effects of drugs and alcohol. It also has a Prescription Drug Task Force that works with pain clinics to try to keep the community drug free.

"Addiction is a disease and we need to treat it as that," Huddleston said. "So, if we can come together as a community and work as a whole to combat that, that's where we're going to make the most difference."

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