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Multistate Effort Launched to Address Opioid Epidemic

Tennessee Supreme Court cases involving opioid abuse only occasionally come before Chief Justice Jeffrey Bivens.

But Bivens' duties off the bench take him across the state, and he has been alarmed by what he has seen of Tennessee's epidemic firsthand.

"I go from Mountain City to Memphis, and you just see it from one end of the state to the next," Bivens said.

Bivens is one of six chief justices in the Midwest and Appalachia to help launch a new regional approach to tackling a growing drug abuse crisis that has led to a surge in overdose deaths, babies born suffering from withdrawal, and courtrooms and county jails seeing a growing number of individuals who have committed crimes to support their addiction.

With the participation of trial court judges and health care and community groups, the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative will take a multistate approach to an epidemic that doesn't stop at state borders and has grown too outsized for any one state to handle.

Participating states are Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

"The opioid crisis is devastating our communities, from newborns to grandparents," said Duane Slone, a circuit court judge in East Tennessee who has been key in driving the multistate collaboration. "We need to break down barriers across state lines and within state departments."

Timeline: How the opioids crisis took hold

Children are particularly at risk for getting caught between different state jurisdictions, Slone said. Children neglected by addicted parents may be placed in foster care in Tennessee, while they have loving grandparents in Kentucky. Parents may move from one state to another to find willing drug prescribers.

States also can begin to share their databases on opioid prescriptions — vital information that would help identify people who "doctor shop" across state lines.

The regional initiative also hopes to change state rules to allow addiction experts certified in one state to be able to practice in another as well as undertake regional analysis of opioid deaths and the uses of reversal medication to be able to get a better understanding of the scope of the problem. The regional effort will be coordinated by the National Center for State Courts.

The collaboration also is intended to share examples of what works and what doesn't work between states.

"Our region is at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic," Slone said. "It's going to take a tremendous amount of work and energy in moving this forward. But our citizens deserve no less."

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