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Guest Opinion: Our opioid epidemic can’t be ignored

Tucked in my backpack alongside my house keys and a stash of notepaper is a little blue bag. Inside the zippered pouch is a package of Narcan (AKA Naloxone) nasal spray. For someone whose breathing has slowed or stopped due to an opioid overdose, a dose of Narcan can make the difference between life and death.

To my knowledge, I don’t have a family members or friend with an opioid addiction. But I live in a world where overdose deaths have reached epidemic proportions. Since March 6, we’ve had 10 overdose deaths in Jackson County. 10! We can’t stand by any more.

I got my dose of Narcan at a giveaway organized by Ashland residents Julia and David Pinsky. Five years ago their son, Max, an Ashland kid, a poet and an addict, died of an overdose. Max was one of four young men, each full of promise, each loved by a family, who died within a few months during the cruel winter of 2015.

Now the deadly opioid epidemic has accelerated and the Pinskys have stepped up. Unable to accept their heartbreaking loss as just another cold statistic, they created Max’s Mission. The spirit of their son lives on in a nonprofit foundation dedicated to getting Narcan into the hands of people like you and me. With Narcan within reach, any one of us can save a life.

Of course, administering Narcan is a last minute, last ditch intervention. Those who survive — and certainly those who are just starting down the path toward addiction — need access to treatment options. Narcan can create a second chance but a chance is not a guarantee.

There’s the rub. Nationwide data indicates that only 11 percent of those with substance abuse issues receive treatment at a specialized center. The situation is even more dire in Oregon, which ranks 50th among the states in access to services.

Understanding that we need to transform our treatment system, the legislature has instructed the state’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission to develop a plan to improve public addiction services. Once we have a plan, we have to identify funding.

In the meantime, we need to build public support for the significant investment that real change will require. That means nothing less than a fundamental change in our attitudes toward addiction.

We are in the middle of this devastating epidemic because we’ve been unwilling to understand that addicts aren’t just debauched celebrities or distant inner-city junkies. Addiction is a disease that affects our own families and our own neighbors. Methamphetamine and opioid use overcrowds our jails and overloads our Child Protective Services workers.

If there is a sliver of a silver lining in Max’s death or in the frightening numbers reported by our local police departments, it is that that we are now forced to see addiction in our own backyard.

One hopeful development is that a new organization, Oregon Recovers, is giving voice to those who have seen the crisis up close. A coalition of people in recovery, supported by friends and family members, Oregon Recovers is committed to “transform Oregon health care to ensure world-class prevention, treatment, and recovery support services for Oregonians suffering from the disease of addiction.” Their ambitious goal is to move Oregon from last to first in addiction services over the next five years.

Meanwhile, the Pinskys are leading the way. Over the past 18 months, Max’s Mission has distributed more than 500 free doses of Narcan. The addicts they may have saved could include your son, daughter, neighbor or coworker.

Are the rest of us ready to do our part?

Pam Marsh represents District 5 in the Oregon House of Representatives.