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Sandoval opens summit, calls drug abuse one of the deadliest epidemics

CARSON CITY — Prescription drug addiction, the downward spiral of lives ruined, loved ones lost, and the cost to society were the focus of a daylong meeting convened Tuesday by Gov. Brian Sandoval, who called the problem a crisis.

“Without question this is one of the most important health challenges we currently face,” Sandoval said, calling prescription drug abuse “one of the deadliest epidemics” in the United States.

Statistics are sobering. While overdose deaths related to opiates in Nevada have declined from 517 in 2010 to 382 last year, at least one Nevadan dies every day from an opiate overdose.

From 2010 to 2014, hospital inpatient admissions related to opioids jumped to 3,783 from 2,993.

“I think many people are in denial that there is a problem, and in the meantime our friends and family are dying and suffering when they don’t have to,” the governor said.

Panel members include mental health professionals, substance abuse experts, law enforcement, prosecutors, lawmakers and judges.

Sandoval said he wants the panel to focus on duties and responsibilities of health care licensing boards, coordination among law enforcement, substance abuse treatment, and sale and availability of pharmaceuticals.

“We seek answers, not excuses,” Sandoval said.

Patricia Chang carries the scars of her husband’s prescription addiction that engulfed her life in an emotional nightmare before it finally killed him.

She described the turmoil and pain of watching the man she loved turn to prescription drugs after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Then one day she found an empty pill bottle. Then she found eight more.

Chang would find many more in the coming months. It ended in January 2003 when she found him dead of an overdose on the couch.

“I was a widow at the age of 30,” she said. Thirteen years later, she still has anger.

Kevin Hord of Las Vegas said he became addicted to prescription drugs and later to heroin after a 2004 all-terrain vehicle accident.

“I hit rock bottom. I threw my career away. I threw my kids away. Financially I was ruined,” Hord said. He attempted suicide six times. After he ingested dozens of pills, a police officer found him and got him into specialized treatment.

“When I hit 12 months clean I called the police officer up and thanked him,” he said.

But the solution to beating opioid abuse runs deeper than treating addicts, experts said, and will require a concerted effort with law enforcement, judges, doctors, pharmaceutical companies and treatment facilities.

One doctor and a pharmaceutical representative told the committee that there are other options to treat chronic pain but often insurance companies or Medicaid won’t pay for them.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said prescription pill drug trafficking in Las Vegas is “rampant.” In the past five years, there were nearly 700 drug-related deaths in the county. Of those, 40 percent were tied to prescription drugs.

Heroin deaths are also increasing, as pill addicts turn to the heroin because they can no longer afford the pills.

One opioid pill from the pharmacy will cost about $11. On the street, it can fetch $80.

Wolfson also warned that pill abuse is taxing the limits of law enforcement labs. The volume of driving under the influence arrests involving prescription drugs has spiked in recent years, he said.

But testing for those substances takes longer than testing for alcohol, and with the backlog can sometimes take up to a year which delays the filing of criminal charges.

“I can tell you right now, we have many DUI drivers … that while they’re waiting for their first case to be filed, pick up a second and third case,” Wolfson said. “This is unacceptable.”

Wolfson stressed that prosecutors don’t want to incarcerate drug addicts.

“Prosecutors want to punish the pushers who prey on the vulnerable for profit,” he said.

Tuesday’s hearing was a prelude to a two-day summit to be held later this summer, when the committee will make policy and legislative recommendations in advance of the 2017 Legislature.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3821. Find @SandraChereb on Twitter. Contact Pashtana Usufzy at pusufzy@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4563. Find @pashtana_u on Twitter.

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