One thousand, six hundred and thirty one. That is how many Tennesseans died from a drug overdose in 2016. Of overdose deaths in 2016, 72.7 percent had an opioid present in their system when they died. These numbers make very clear the scourge that is the opioid epidemic in Tennessee.
In January 2017, I announced the formation of a task force on opioid and prescription drug abuse. I tasked the group with identifying the best strategies for tackling the opioid epidemic, and prioritizing what could be done by the legislature. The task force had a series of meetings where they heard from Tennesseans who had been impacted by this crisis in numerous ways: addicts, family members of addicts, law enforcement, judges, district attorneys, doctors, and countless people who serve in a variety of roles in the medical community. The result was a deeper understanding the impact this epidemic is having on our state and the steps we could take to address it.
The exhaustive list of recommendations includes things that should certainly be a multi-year effort, but for the immediate future, I prioritized three things to tackle in the 2018 legislative session: 1. Expanding access to treatment programs; 2. Allowing patients to limit the number of pills prescribed to them; and 3. Investing resources into law enforcement efforts to combat the problem.
First, treatment must be a part of the solution. Treatment programs have proven to be an effective tool in fighting the epidemic. Drug courts in Tennessee are nothing new and have been very successful, but we must commit more resources so that those addicts who want to get clean are able to do so. There are 10 treatment admissions for abuse for every one death, and there are approximately 12,500 Tennesseans who do not have access to treatment today. We will be seeking additional funding in this year’s budget that will be made available to the courts to offer treatment assistance to offenders needing it.
Second, we will be filing legislation that allows patients to limit the amount of pills in a prescription dispensed directly to them. Throughout the task force process, I heard from many Tennesseans who had minor surgery, and were prescribed opioids to relieve the temporary pain. However, while the recovery stage might only be three days, they were prescribed 30 days worth of opioids. This often led to either abuse by the patient, or abuse by a friend or family member who had access to the leftover pills. We will propose that patients can simply request a limited number of pills out of the prescription, to keep extra and unused pills off the street.
Finally, we need to invest more resources into law enforcement efforts to combat this problem. This means additional Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents who can target drug dealers and distribution chains that keep these drugs on the street. The latest threat is fentanyl, which is a type of opioid. In Decatur County earlier this year, drug agents seized 10 kilos of Fentanyl during a traffic stop — the lethal dose for an adult is 2 milligrams.
While these are the initiatives I will be prioritizing and spearheading, other members are bringing forth proposals to address this epidemic that I will be supporting and working with our colleagues to pass. We must all work together and be united in our opposition to this public health crisis if we are to make any progress. The health, safety, and wellbeing of Tennessee depend on it.
Beth Harwell serves as Speaker of the House, a position to which she was first unanimously elected in 2011. She is the first female Speaker of the House in Tennessee, and in the Southeast. Harwell represents part of Davidson County in the Tennessee General Assembly.