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Substance abuse in Arkansas a worry during pandemic, officials say

by Tony Holt | October 27, 2020 at 9:40 a.m.
This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison)

Opioid overdose deaths have been trending downward in Arkansas, but the FBI and other agencies worry that the covid-19 crisis could prompt an uptick in substance abuse.

The latest fear for law enforcement is that drug abuse will worsen as people look for ways to cope with job losses, family deaths and infection-related anxieties that come with the pandemic.

“We’re championing the fact that we’re moving in the right direction, but … relapses are possible,” said Arkansas Drug Director Kirk Lane, who joined other drug enforcement officials Monday at the FBI office in Little Rock.

They were there to tout the annual Red Ribbon Week, which runs Oct. 23-31. The Drug Enforcement Administration considers The Red Ribbon program the largest drug-abuse prevention campaign in the country.

Lane and others discussed ways the opioid crisis has seeped into the public’s consciousness. He was joined by FBI Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch and DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Justin King, both of whom work out of their agencies’ Little Rock field offices.

State Education Secretary Johnny Key also joined them, saying school districts across the state are addressing the opioid crisis more often despite the discomfort and emotional weight that comes with it.

“A lot of them know this is important,” he said. “There’s a general reluctance to talk about this subject … It’s hard to do this.”

Teachers throughout the state have been showing “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict,” a documentary that the DEA has urged school districts to include in their curriculum. The film comes with a study guide.

Anti-drug campaigns were common during the 1980s and 1990s when crack-cocaine and heroin were the substances that elicited the most headlines. More recently, prescription opioids have been the bigger problem, resulting in higher death tolls. According to the DEA, controlled-prescription drugs are responsible for the most drug-involved overdose deaths in the United States.

“Nowadays, if you ask someone [in high school] whether they know anyone who has died from a drug overdose, you’re more likely to get a ‘Yes,’” Lane said.

In 2018, there were 426 reported opioid-related overdose deaths in Arkansas. Last year, that number was reduced to 352 deaths — a drop of 18.1%, according to the state.

Lane said the overdose death rate is still trending downward, but during the covid-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in law enforcement’s use of Narcan, a medication first-responders use to treat people suffering from an opioid overdose emergency.

Upchurch said that even those who have a crime-stopping perspective on drugs empathize with those who suffer from addiction. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies often administer Narcan to overdose victims.

“It’s still our community, our families, our friends [who suffer],” she said. “There are so many families who have lost loved ones to this. You can’t put that aside.”

Upchurch also insisted that drug abuse isn’t restricted to one or two areas. It’s an urban, suburban and rural crisis across the state.

“It’s a big problem everywhere,” she said. “It doesn’t have any borders.”

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