We have heard too many tragic stories from families who have lost loved ones due to the opioid crisis across Arkansas, including a mother whose son was a graduate of Parkview Magnet High School in Little Rock and attended UALR who lost his battle with addiction to a fentanyl-laced overdose at the age of 31, or from parents whose daughter, a nurse, was prescribed opioids after an accident, became addicted, and ultimately lost her battle with addiction.
These heart-wrenching stories are only two out of many others that we have heard in Arkansas.
The opioid crisis is an Arkansan and American tragedy that represents a systemic and holistic failure of the American health-care and legal systems. The roots of the crisis date back to 1996 and the release of a new drug, OxyContin, by Purdue Pharma. Purdue cited a study from the New England Journal of Medicine that stated that its drug would have less than a 1 percent rate of addiction.
That statistic, founded in neither science nor data, fueled the first wave of the opioid crisis: physician overprescribing.
Fast-forward 25 years and, sadly, the opioid crisis has touched nearly every American in some capacity. In 2020, according to the Arkansas State Crime Lab, 225 Arkansans died of an opioid-related overdose, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that over 81,000 Americans have lost their lives as well--the deadliest year on record. Today, about 11 Arkansans are revived daily from an opioid overdose by first responders.
Many are surprised to learn that Arkansas has the second-highest opioid prescribing rate; our state has an average of 86.3 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. The national average is 46.7 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. While this has been steadily declining, it remains concerning because, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four out of five heroin users started with prescription opioids.
Arkansas' journey with the opioid crisis is unlike many other states, as it was hit by the opioid crisis later than other states. As such, Arkansas was able to learn what worked well for other states and apply those same policies.
The Arkansas Legislature has acted and passed multiple bills that Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law. The first law, from 2015, established the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) providing our state with an opportunity to stop multiple fulfillments of an opioid prescription.
A second law requires a co-prescription of an opioid reversal drug if an individual is prescribed an opioid, and the second makes it a felony for anyone to sell or traffic the lethal drug fentanyl. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, and heroin is twice as strong as morphine, which is why it is so important to prevent fentanyl trafficking and sales. In the U.S. Congress, Sen. Tom Cotton and I introduced the Fentanyl Sanctions Act, and have taken action and extended the ban on fentanyl-related substances.
While opioid overdose deaths went up because of covid-19, Arkansas' statistics were lower compared to other states. This is important because it shows that we're making progress to combat opioid use disorder, but more can and should be done.
Arkansas must continue the progress it has made through the PDMP, NARCANsas program, and Arkansas Peers Recovery Together program. We should also take lessons, processes, and best practices learned during the unprecedented covid-19 pandemic and replicate them to potentially save more lives.
Our state must build off the momentum from the co-prescribing and fentanyl legislation in the previous legislative session. Learning lessons from covid, Arkansas needs to be receiving and reporting overdose data daily. The pandemic also showed us how we can more effectively message and engage with the public on issues related to public health, and we should use those same techniques and practices to combat the opioid crisis.
As we continue to add constructive solutions for the opioid crisis, we must ensure that our law enforcement and legal community have a seat at the table as well. They are part of the solution because many people in treatment are there because the legal system is requiring them to be. Continuing to have properly trained officers and an informed legal community allows us to connect people to much-needed resources.
We are committed to working with other state and national leaders to break the ravages of addiction, help our families, and fight every day to keep illegal drugs out of the hands of our kids.
For Arkansas and our nation to heal and move forward, we must learn from the past and work on constructive solutions that will save Arkansan and American lives from this deadly drug crisis in the future.
U.S. Rep. French Hill represents Arkansas' 2nd District. Kirk Lane is Arkansas Drug Director.