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Attack Both Supply, Demand in Opioid Fight

East Tennesseans continue to die from drug overdoses at an alarming rate.

As of last Wednesday, there have been 17 prospective overdose deaths in Knox County so far in 2017. According Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen, there were 237 prospective overdose deaths in 2016, a number that, if confirmed, would be a sizeable increase over the 170 overdose deaths in 2015.

The rapidly rising overdose death rate has prompted authorities to form a special task force targeting the drug dealers responsible. The Overdose Death Investigation Task Force consists of Knoxville Police Department, the Knox County Attorney General’s Office, the Knox County Medical Examiner's Office, the Sheriff's Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Funding comes from the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. The federal program provides additional resources to fight drug trafficking in East Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

Prescription pain killers such as hydrocodone and oxyocodone are the leading cause of overdose deaths in Knox County, though deaths caused by heroin and fentanyl, a drug 52 times stronger than morphine, are increasing, KPD Chief David Rausch said.

Prescription pain killers such as hydrocodone and oxyocodone are the leading cause of overdose deaths in Knox County, though deaths caused by heroin and fentanyl are increasing, KPD Chief David Rausch said.

The task force aims to use the Oak Ridge National Laboratory's computers to process data in order to identify trends among drug dealers and overdose victims so authorities can “be more proactive,” according to Allen.

The task force is tackling the supply end of the pipeline, but reducing demand is vital as well.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revised its guidelines on prescribing opioids, advocating physical therapy, non-opioid analgesics and other methods of treatment before resorting painkillers. If doctors write opioid prescriptions, the CDC recommends low dosages over a short time period.

State funding for addiction treatment, however, lags way behind the need. Without treatment, addicts will continue to abuse opioids and will continue to overdose.

There have been some successes in the battle against opioid abuse, but so far they do not appear to have had an effect on the death toll.

New state regulations require pain clinics to be certified and inspected at least once every two years, and to have a medical director on staff, Dr. Mitchell Mutter, the state’s medical director for special projects, said at a recent forum on the crisis. The state has decertified about 145 of some 330 pain clinics across the state, he said, closing down 21 in Knox County alone.

Additional training for medical practitioners has reduced overprescribing, and a database to track opioid prescriptions statewide has cut the incidents of “doctor shopping” in half, said Dave Chaney, spokesman for the Tennessee Medical Association.

Still, the number of overdose deaths continues to rise. Smarter policing, responsible doctoring and more funding for treatment are the best hope Tennessee has for stemming the tide of addiction.

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