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What is the "Opioid Epidemic" and How Does it Affect Arizonans?

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Opioid Epidemic in AZ

In 2018, "opioid epidemic" has been a trending buzz phrase being used in the news and media not only in the United States, but across the globe. In a world filled with competing news headlines and viral social-issue campaigns, it can sometimes be hard to determine what's relevant, and what's accurate information.

If sifting through a bombardment of information isn't enough, sometimes we can also dismiss the things we hear about or learn, especially if it feels like something that isn't very close to home. We all do this, and it's all too easy. "Oh, that's something that only happens to them", "There are no drugs in my neighborhood, only in the bad parts of town," or even "Well, they shouldn't have started taking drugs in the first place." Unfortunately, the "opioid epidemic" is real, and it's time we all take a closer look at what is happening in our own backyard.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, there were 2,309 suspected opioid deaths in Arizona and over 14,000 suspected opioid overdoses from June 15, 2017 to October 11, 2018. At 790 confirmed deaths in Arizona from opioid overdose in 2017, this is a "74% increase over the past four years." Arizona is a fairly large state with a population of approximately 7 million people, so this may seem like a small fish in the ocean at first glance, until we explore some of the root causes.

During the month of September, there were 289,067 opioid prescriptions dispensed in Arizona. Out of the prescriptions dispensed, only 38.7% of Arizona prescribers have looked up patient medication history in the Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program (CSPMP).

Who does the opioid epidemic affect?

Everyone. Many believe that most current opioid users are the result of partying, experimentation, or even attempts to medicate other stresses of everyday life, the same way you might enjoy a glass of wine after a long day of work. You wouldn't be alone in thinking this, in fact, it's very common thinking. The truth is, many people become addicted to opioids after taking prescribed opioid pain medication and others become addicted while experimenting or misusing medication.

Pain Management and Substance Abuse

Opioid addiction can begin with pain management. Injuries and accidents happen every day from various causes ranging from sports injuries, car accidents, workplace mishaps, and even with complications in medical conditions. As reported by AZ Central, a state review reported that "36% of people who died by opioids had a prior opioid-related encounter at a hospital or emergency medical provider in the five years before their death."  When we become injured, we want the pain to just go away. Fortunately, the field of medicine has found very effective ways to fight pain with the use of morphine, hydrocodone, and other pain reducing medications. Unfortunately, these medications are highly addictive and many people take them without knowing this fact.

At the age of 18, I was given a prescription of 12 pills of hydrocodone following a surgery for wisdom teeth removal, a very common procedure for adolescents and young adults. Everyone has a different path to recovery, and fortunately, I was back in action at work and school within two days, having only used 4 of those pills for pain. Despite some joking suggestions from relatives and friends to "have fun with the drugs," I'm very glad that my parents had the sense to dispose of the rest. Having only used 1/3 of the prescription given, that opened a doorway that could have very well led down a path to further opioid use and addiction. Arizona has several safe disposal sites for unused medication across the state.

What does this have to do with heroin, fentanyl, and all those other substances?

The path to opioid addiction can start with prescribed drugs, but many soon realize that there is a large price tag attached to them. Pain pills are expensive, heroin is cheap.  Often times, many resort to using non-prescription or synthetic opioids, as well as heroin, to feed their addiction, long after their medical treatment or injury occurred.

There is Hope for Opioid Abuse


Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, is a lifesaving medication used to reverse the effects of opioid overdose. As of June 15, 2017, there have been nearly 29,000 doses of naloxone dispensed within Arizona.   In the past 16 months, there have been 6,316 naloxone kits ordered for 63 law enforcement agencies.  Of those dispensed, 7,693 have been administered for life saving treatment during an overdose. Naloxone has an increased effectiveness the sooner it's utilized and it has saved thousands of lives.

In addition, The Governor's Office reported that Arizona has received $20 Million Dollars to combat the opioid epidemic.  This funding is reported to help provide treatment, increase access to care, increase public awareness, expand housing and peer supports, and increase prevention efforts in the state.

October 27, 2018- National Take Back Day

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is hosting a National Take Back Day on October 27th, from 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM. Several drop off sites will be located across the state of Arizona. This day is dedicated to providing a safe disposal of unused and unwanted prescription medications to clean out our medicine cabinets and help prevent overdose and drug addiction for Arizona families. Take Back Day is a great step forward in keeping our communities safe, and can help reduce the opioid epidemic. The more we all take part, the more we will see an impact in our community. To find a location near you, go to takebackday.dea.gov and find a site near you!

How do I learn more?

The following links may help you to acquire and utilize naloxone, as well as offer additional resources to those who are struggling.

Lastly, if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, Aurora Behavioral Health offers free assessments and is here to help.  Aurora provides a 24/7 Patient Services Helpline that you can reach by calling 480.345.5420 to speak with one of our caring clinicians today!

This blog article was written by Jordan Peterson, MS.