Kentuckians, we have a problem.
While much of the media’s focus was on Confederate flag and statue rallies, another gunman at a movie theater, and flooding in several Kentucky counties, an alarming report released by the state Office of Drug Control Policy, showing an increase of 7.6 percent in deaths due to drug overdose, might have escaped our attention. In fact, deaths from drug overdoses made up almost 60 percent of accidental deaths statewide—more than car accidents, ﬁre, drowning or gunshot wounds.
The report indicates 1,087 overdose fatalities in 2014, 77 more than in 2013. Of the 795 deaths autopsied by the Kentucky Medical Examiner that were due to drug overdoses, 233, nearly one-third, were attributed to heroin. The rise in overdose deaths indicates the persistent challenge of reining in substance use and abuse, ofﬁcials observed.
Fayette County saw the largest increase in fatalities from overdoses, with a 30 percent jump last year, the Herald Leader reported. In Lexington, 112 people died from overdoses, compared with 86 in 2013. Meanwhile, Jefferson County (Louisville) had the most overdose deaths with 204, up 12 from 2013. And in Northern Kentucky, Campbell, Kenton and Boone counties ranked three, four and ﬁve, respectively, in the rate of drug overdose deaths per 100,000, an article in The Kentucky Enquirer noted. Kenton County saw 26 heroin-related overdose deaths, while Campbell and Boone counties saw 15 and 14 deaths.
But this problem isn’t confined to the state’s major urban areas. The Appalachian News-Express reported that Pike County had the second-highest rate of overdose deaths, with 50.8 per 100,000 people in 2014. There were 32 overdose deaths in Pike County in 2014, an increase from 24 the previous year. Pike trailed only Floyd County, which had a rate of 55.1, nearly 4.5 deaths higher per 100,000.
Most of these victims had multiple drugs in their system, the ODCP report noted. Morphine was found in about 40.9 percent of the cases, followed by cannabinoids at 35.7 percent and heroin at 28.8 percent. Other drugs commonly found included prescription medicines, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.
As if this news wasn’t bad enough, Flakka—an illegal synthetic drug that causes users to become hyper paranoid and exhibit superhuman strength—is making its way into the state, the Kentucky New Era warns. Flakka, which has been described as more addictive than cocaine and cheaper than a Big Mac, is testing local law enforcement resources.
Sheriff Johnny Bivens of Lewis County told the Paducah Sun that Flakka “is the worst drug I’ve seen in my 18-year career.” In addition to extreme paranoia and unusual strength, Flakka, also known as gravel, triggers a syndrome called excited delirium that pushes one’s body temperature to dangerous levels, which damages the brain and other vital organs and may induce heart attacks. This extremely addictive drug which can be injected, snorted or vaporized is white or pinkish, looks like rock salt, and has a foul smell similar to ammonia.
The Kentucky General Assembly has taken some key steps in curbing overdose deaths, stiffening penalties for heroin trafﬁckers and increasing access to an overdose-reversal drug, naloxone. Legislators also established a controversial needle exchange program and created a “good Samaritan” provision that allows people to seek help for overdose victims without facing prosecution.
While stronger legislation is a needed start, drug-abuse education and prevention requires a community effort. Tracey Corey, Kentucky’s chief medical examiner, told the Herald Leader, “What we can deﬁnitely say is that we need to continue to devote signiﬁcant resources and energy to help curb the tragic and untimely deaths of so many Kentuckians.” But, what else can be done to prevent overdose deaths?
Awareness and constant vigilance are the best tools parents can use to help keep kids safe, and churches can undertake a key role in helping make adults more aware of possible substances that children and other family members may be abusing and of the warning signs of drug addictions. Law enforcement officials, doctors and EMTs, school administrators and teachers, church leaders, other faith-based organizations, and substance-abuse treatment centers can join forces to implement public education and drug-abuse prevention campaigns. Pastors, youth ministers, and Sunday School teachers can make information about local treatment resources readily available for individuals who seek help, and certiﬁed alcohol and drug counselors in our congregations can be enlisted to offer group and individual therapy sessions. Churches also can provide compassionate and healing support groups for individuals and families.