Lt. John Harless, with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, talks about the rise of opioid use in Mississippi and across the United States during a Tuesday evening opioid town hall at Mississippi State University. The town hall, hosted by the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, focused on educating citizens about the opioid epidemic. Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff
October 10, 2018 10:39:28 AM
In his 20 years as a Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agent, Lt. John Harless has seen his share of "crises" and "epidemics" -- words he said government agencies often apply to negative patterns.
However, he said the opioid crisis sweeping across the United States stands out.
"It's like candy at Halloween because we know those get attention," Harless said. "But I've got to tell you, in my time, I've been through the end of the crack cocaine boom. I've been through the meth boom. I've been through those and I've never seen anything like this."
Harless was one of several speakers at an opioid town hall the Mississippi Department of Mental Health hosted Thursday evening at Mississippi State University.
Opioids, Harless said, are a class of drug, such as oxycontin, meant to relieve pain. They can be addictive because of how they interact with certain receptors in the brain. That addiction can lead to using drugs like heroin, and then to fentanyl, which Harless said is often used as an anesthetic for surgeries because it's 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
"The story of people who die from opioid overdoses typically begins with a prescription drug," Harless said. "... More often than not, people don't wake up and say, 'Today's the day I'm gonna go shoot heroin.' It starts with a car wreck. It starts with a twisted knee. It starts with a prescription that goes unchecked."
Anyone can fall victim
Angella Mallette's case of opioid addiction started with a prescription. Now an outreach coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, she didn't realize she was an opioid addict until it was too late.
Mallette recalled being shown pictures in school of what methamphetamine or cocaine addicts look like. But she was a professional, with an engineering degree from the University of Mississippi.
Her life began to change after her child was stillborn eight months into her pregnancy and doctors had to perform an emergency caesarian section. She went home with an oxycontin prescription and was back at work three days later.
"I didn't realize that it was because of these pills that I was able to go back to work so fast," she said. "Fast-forward about two or three months and I'm physically addicted to them -- I'd get sick if I did not take them. So (then) my girlfriends in my social circles became my dealers because their husbands had pills they didn't take.
"Fast-forward a little bit longer and I'm buying them off the street," Mallette continued. "Eventually, addiction did to me what it does to everyone. It chewed me up and spit me out."
Mallette's addiction led to heroin use, and ultimately, a felony charge before she was court-ordered to treatment in Jackson in 2013.
The recovery process, Mallette said, is not easy. It comes with setbacks, and she even had her own setback in 2016.
Now, Mallette shares her story in an effort to help support those who struggle with addiction and to raise awareness of the opioid crisis. She said the scariest thing about the opioid epidemic is that anyone can fall victim to it.
"Addiction is not something that someone chooses to do and it's not something that someone can stop voluntarily on their own, without treatment," she said.
Harless said a spike in drug prescriptions usually precedes a rise in heroin usage.
That was the case in Mississippi, where, he said, heroin wasn't a major concern until about four or five years ago. Since then, deaths from heroin have risen more than 3,000 percent and felony cases of heroin use are up about 400 percent across the state.
High opioid prescriptions continue to be an issue. Harless said last year, 183 million dosage units were prescribed in Mississippi, which has a population of about 2.9 million people, for an average of about 63 doses per person. Still, he said, that number is down almost 10 percent from 2016.
Harless noted about one-in-three people who receive 30-day opioid prescriptions are likely to become addicted. When doctors issue shorter three- or five-day prescriptions, he said, those numbers fall significantly.
Across the United States, 72,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2017. Harless said 60 to 65 percent of those cases involved opioids. To offer scale for the crisis, Harless said about 37,000 people died in car wrecks the same year.
In Mississippi, 256 people died of reported drug overdoses last year. However, Harless said the measure is a new one in the state and may be low as officials work out methods to better track overdose deaths.
"This is a work in progress," he said. "We're working on a mechanism to get a more accurate number. From somebody who works on it every day, I'd say that's easily double, or slightly possibly triple, looking at statistics from other states."
Steve Parker, deputy director for the Mississippi Board of Pharmacy, said there's more work for the government to combat the opioid crisis. However, he said, it's going to take more than that to truly solve it.
"The government can't fix this problem," he said. "This problem's going to be fixed in our local communities, in our relationships, in our families. It's got to be fixed by us."
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