Although it’s depressing to consider that we live in a time when opioid drug addiction is a familiar aspect of American life even in bucolic rural areas like ours, we can derive some encouragement from the fact local public officials are receptive to creating a needle exchange program. Regret about an ugly situation shouldn’t get in the way of confronting it with every tool at our disposal.

The program is based across the Columbia in Clatsop County, but our two counties plus others upriver from us basically share a unified population of IV drug users. They go where they must to find drugs but will also have a chance of encountering this program that will help curb the spread of disease. The ability to take this sensible action was much aided by a $50,000 donation from Friends of Columbia Community Health; all communities should be so lucky as to have such a nonprofit.

Although needle use here around the mouth of the Columbia is still tied in part to illicit use of methamphetamine, there’s no doubt use of heroin and related opioid drugs has become entrenched in our towns — places where heroin was an alien concept merely 10 or 15 years ago.

Nationwide, deaths involving the use of the pain-relieving drugs have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC found the amount of painkillers prescribed during the year was enough for every American to be medicated around the clock for three weeks. While the spread of illicit forms of opioid drugs has a complex set of causes, many public health experts believe over-prescribing of pain drugs has paved the road to hell by creating physical dependencies in people, a few of whom then turn to cheaper heroin.

Nationwide, opioids were involved in 33,091 fatal overdoses in 2015. Preliminary figures suggest a shocking increase to around 60,000 deaths in 2016. There are up to 2.6 million opioid addicts in the U.S. A federal report issued last week stated, “The opioid epidemic we are facing is unparalleled. The average American would likely be shocked to know that drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined.” This danger has been much increased in the past couple years by the addition of powerful synthetic pain drugs to up the strength of street heroin.

The momentum of this health disaster swept up President Trump last month, who declaimed “The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially right now it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.”

An emergency declaration will be beneficial, allowing officials at all levels to bypass some aspects of bureaucratic red tape that otherwise impedes sensible responses. Funds freed up by a presidential declaration should go toward addiction treatment and other forms of public-health intervention, and not be used to ramp up yet another failed “war on drugs” that sends addicts to prison. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this epidemic,” a co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness told the Washington Post.

Emergency responders in our region have become increasingly used to the need to carry and administer the new fast-acting opiate-antidote Narcan (also called naloxone). Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson has facilitated his department’s ability to carry Narcan, a step certain to save lives. Administration of the antidote has become almost standard operating procedure in some circumstances, such as when the patient is unresponsive or there are other clues they may have overdosed. The actual antidote is inexpensive, but patented deliver systems make doses shockingly expensive. Congress and the president could make themselves useful by forcefully intervening in this situation that puts profits ahead of lives.

Steps like the needle exchange program stir some natural concerns in the law enforcement community. Such exchanges are a compassionate way to stem the spread of blood-borne diseases, while builds points of contact between addicts and health providers that can help lead to recovery and overdose avoidance. But, clearly, compassion should be tempered by the need to avoid creating an attractive nuisance that draws more criminal behavior to particular neighborhoods or communities. Enlightened policies can’t be permitted to become a slippery slope to “anything goes.”

Law enforcement and prosecutors will best spend their time by pursuing major dealers and distribution networks.

There’s no doubt that heroin and its prescription-drug siblings are exacting a terrible toll on our communities. Every premature death and life squandered in addiction is deeply regrettable. Society’s heroin junkie is someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister.

This is a crisis worthy of everyone’s attention.

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