Chasing the heroin and opioid dragon out of Nome
On Thursday, September 22, community members, health professionals and officials from the local to federal level gathered in Trigg Hall at the Nome Eskimo Community building for the same purpose: to learn more about the heroin and opioid epidemic that is plaguing the nation.
According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of death from drug overdose has increased 137 percent between 2000 and 2014, including a 200 percent increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers and heroin.
The remote state of Alaska is not immune to the epidemic, having seen a dramatic increase in heroin and opioid abuse in the past decade. The problem is spreading beyond large cities and affecting villages and small towns throughout the state. According to Andrea Hattan, federal prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney, the rate of deaths in Alaska due to heroin overdose is currently 50 percent higher than the national average, and even more for prescription opioids.
The presentation on Thursday began with the documentary “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict,” followed by a panel discussion and questions from the community. The film, which can be viewed online via the Drug Enforcement Association’s website or on YouTube, included various interviews of opiate addicts and their family members. The interviews were separated by alarming statistics and accompanied by disturbing images and strong language. The film was shown earlier that day to students at Nome-Beltz Jr./Sr. High School.
After the film, panel members gathered at the front of Trigg Hall to answer a series of questions. Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Hattan led the discussion, first addressing the audience. “This epidemic is a real, serious threat and we need your help,” said Hattan.
The panel included agents from the DEA and FBI, Nome Police Department, Alaska State Troopers, Nome District Attorney’s Office, Office of Children’s Service, and Norton Sound Health Corporation (Hospital, Pharmacy, Behavioral Health Services and the Tribal Healer Program).
The first question asked where the drugs are coming from. FBI Supervisory Special Agent Kurt Ormberg explained that 90 percent of illegal drugs in the U.S. are coming from Mexico. Currently, Mexico is the largest producer and distributor of opiates like heroin. Ormberg said the business of drug trafficking is run by large cartels only concerned with profits. The nationwide use of opiates is growing faster than any other drug.
The next question focused more close to home, as Hattan asked Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Charlie Cross if the local department is seeing heroin in Nome. Sgt. Cross said most of the abuse or misuse they are seeing starts with prescription opioids. In Nome, there has been more than a half dozen arrests involving opioids or heroin, and the department has seen a significant increase in activity around opiate abuse.
Dr. Shana Theobald of NSHC addressed the role that medical professionals play in opiate addiction and abuse. Dr. Theobald said that historically, doctors have been trained to always “treat the pain.” With quick-acting prescription drugs like opioids, they are able to alleviate a patient’s pain within minutes. But the consequences of over-prescribing have no doubt contributed to the current opiate abuse epidemic. Dr. Theobald said that the training for medical professionals is changing, focusing on balancing patient pain and exploring alternatives to these strong, addictive prescription drugs.
Kathryn Sawyer, pharmacist at NSHC, explained the composition of opioid drugs and how they react with the human brain. Sawyer explained how not all drugs have tolerance like opioids. Human bodies contain mechanisms to adapt to the drug and building a tolerance that develops into a need to take more and more of the drug to be able to feel the effects. When addicts cease using opioids, their tolerance lowers over time. If they relapse, it is highly likely that an accidental overdose will occur when they attempt to take the same amount of drug used when their tolerance was high.
During the discussion, John Papasodora, Chief of Police at Nome Police Department, invited anyone to reach out via the tip line at 443-8509 if they are aware of any opioid or heroin abuse or dealing activity in the community. Those reporting may choose to remain anonymous, although Trooper Sgt. Charlie Cross added later in the discussion that anonymous tips are worthless and won’t hold up in court. Both Chief Papasodora and Sgt. Cross stressed the importance of providing as much information as possible so that authorities are justified to make an arrest. Sgt. Cross said, “If you’re sick of it, you need to step up. If you really want to make an impact, then stand up.”
With a small police force and minimal local troopers stationed in the region, panelists stressed that controlling the spread of heroin and opioid use in Nome and surrounding villages must be a community effort. Citizens must be the watchmen, the reporters, the advisors and the educators. During the panel discussion, various resources for concerned citizens were pointed out. Inside the hospital, there is a large blue bin where prescription drugs can be disposed of properly and anonymously. Pharmacist Kathryn Sawyer emphasized to not flush these potent drugs, as trace amounts can seep into the water system. Behavioral Health Services can be contacted with regards to substance abuse and addiction treatment programs. For alternatives to treating pain, the Tribal Healer Program at NSHC offers hands-on healing for anyone, not just tribal members.
When questions were eventually heard from the audience, the discussion became quickly emotional as concerned citizens spoke from personal experience. A young villager asked how people could reach law enforcement from remote villages; sometimes their voices seemed to be unheard. A mother spoke up asking if anyone has seen her son; she has tried to admit him to drug treatment programs but he is unwilling to go. The discussion ended as a young mother told her story, which turned tragic in 2012. Between tears, she told how her boyfriend became addicted to heroin, drained her bank account, and put her and their child in danger.
Nome was just one stop in a seven-city tour for federal prosecutor Andrea Hattan and her team of FBI and DEA agents.
Meanwhile, the citywide discussion in Nome has a yet to be determined future of how it should continue.
With hopes expressed for more group events and crime stopping programs to come, the certain consensus was that chasing the heroin and opioid problem out of Nome must be a collective effort.