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Kentucky's Opioid Abuse Epidemic

From the 2016 National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Bill speaks with U.S. Congressman Harold "Hal" Rogers (R-KY 5th District) and Jackie Steele, Commonwealth's Attorney for Kentucky's 27th Judicial District and vice-chair of Operation UNITE. Part of KET's Inside Opioid Addiction Initiative.
Season 11 Episode 16 Length 29:01 Premiere: 05/01/16

New Challenges in the Fight Against Drug Addiction

It’s been 13 years since Congressman Hal Rogers founded the anti-drug initiative called Operation UNITE. In that time, the organization has helped jail 4,300 drug dealers, directed thousands of addicts into treatment, and built local coalitions and school programs to fight illicit drug use in every county of Kentucky’s 5th Congressional district.

Operation UNITE is now widely acclaimed for its holistic approach to tackling the drug epidemic in southeastern Kentucky. The group’s clout has grown to the point that even President Barack Obama asked to participate in their recent national prescription drug abuse and heroin summit in Atlanta.

Rogers says he’s thrilled by Operation UNITE’s progress even as he acknowledges the depth of the drug problems that remain in the commonwealth.

“Our work is just getting started,” Rogers says.

The Congressman joined Kentucky Commonwealth’s Attorney Jackie Steele of London on KET’s One to One to discuss how the fight against addiction has changed in recent years.

From Incarceration to Treatment
Back in 2003, when he had just started as a prosecutor, Steele says the criminal justice system had one outcome for drug addicts.

“Without a doubt, law enforcement’s preference was prison,” Steele says. “Put them all in prison.”

But in the past decade, there’s been a concerted effort to change public perceptions about addiction. Health care professionals, treatment specialists, educators, and policymakers have worked to better communicate the dangers of substance abuse and alternative ways to address drug addiction.

“It’s been not only the education of our youth not to do drugs, but the education of our communities that there’s a better resolution than just incarceration,” Steele says.

“There’s a growing understanding that what we’re dealing with here is a disease as opposed to a criminal act,” Rogers adds. “It’s a disease and we’ve got to treat it as such.”

Now instead of a direct ticket to jail, nonviolent drug users in the commonwealth have the option of going to drug court. That’s an intensive 18-month program that helps addicts get clean and return to productive lives. Drug court participants must obtain and keep a court approved full-time job or enroll in school, attend weekly court and counseling sessions, join a regular self-help recovery program, submit to random drug tests, and remain drug-free.

Those who successfully complete the course can seek to have their original criminal charges dismissed. Those who fail face the prospect of going to prison.

“It’s one of the best ways we have to try to rehabilitate a person that has an addiction problem [but] that’s not committed a violent crime,” Rogers says. “It’s tough love. It’s a way to use the threat of jail to force a person to do things that he might otherwise not do in order to break his habit.”

Steele says drug court also makes good economic sense by keeping addicts out of prison and by treating the addiction that can often lead to recidivism.

“The return for a dollar invested in drug courts is phenomenal,” Steele says. “It’s a great program, both financially for the commonwealth of Kentucky but also for our communities because we’re keeping families together.”

No Longer Taboo
Another change that’s occurred since the launch of Operation UNITE is the nature of Kentucky’s drug problem. Whereas the users may have once preferred cocaine or some other illegal substance, Rogers says they’re now more likely to be addicted to a painkiller that was legally prescribed to them by a doctor. He says that obtaining a prescription can even lend a sense of legitimacy to the behaviors of some users.

“I think that has changed people’s attitude about being addicted – they understand how this happens, and more and more families are having someone in their midst that are addicted,” says Rogers. “So I think it’s no longer taboo to bring this up in family discussions.”

The breaking of that conversational silence has even extended to the halls of Congress. Rogers says he joined with former U.S. Rep. Mary Bono of California to form the Congressional Caucus on Drug Abuse. He says the group of several dozen representatives meets informally to learn about drug issues and to discuss drug-related legislation that a member might want to propose. Rogers calls the caucus a “support group” for lawmakers eager to fight addiction.

A Bigger Goal Remains
Even with the work of political leaders, law enforcement officials, treatment experts, and advocacy groups, more than 1,000 Kentuckians continue to die each year from drug overdoses. The epidemic reaches from Appalachian mountain communities, to the metro areas of the state’s Golden Triangle, to towns in far western Kentucky. What’s worse, according to Rogers, is that the state lacks enough treatment centers to meet the demands of those needing help.

On a national level, 78 people die each day from overdosing on a prescription drug, heroin, or other substance. Rogers says if that many people died in a plane crash, the news would make headlines for days. Yet individual overdose deaths largely go unnoticed beyond the immediate families that are affected.

So, while he’s proud of Operation UNITE and the group’s annual national summits, Rogers has set his sights on a more important goal.

“We’ve had the president come… all of the major agencies of the federal government that deal with drugs have been here,” Rogers says. “It’s been a tremendous success, but it counts for nothing unless we see the overdose death rate drop. That will be when I get happy.”

See highlights of Operation UNITE’s 2016 Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit.

foundation_logo2013This KET production is part of the Inside Opioid Addiction initiative, funded in part by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

Sponsored by:

Season 11 Episodes

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Speaker-Elect Jeff Hoover

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Former Congressman Barney Frank

S11 E45 Length 28:36 Premiere Date 12/11/16

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S11 E44 Length 29:02 Premiere Date 11/20/16

Ramez Naam and Seth Siegel

S11 E43 Length 27:31 Premiere Date 11/13/16

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle

S11 E42 Length 27:35 Premiere Date 11/06/16

Kentucky Book Fair Preview

S11 E41 Length 28:02 Premiere Date 10/30/16

U.S. Sen Rand Paul

S11 E40 Length 28:02 Premiere Date 10/23/16

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray

S11 E39 Length 28:02 Premiere Date 10/16/16

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr

S11 E38 Length 28:00 Premiere Date 10/09/16

Nancy Jo Kemper

S11 E37 Length 27:46 Premiere Date 10/02/16

Gary Gregg; Daniel Hayes

S11 E36 Length 28:02 Premiere Date 09/25/16

Adam Edelen and Matt Jones

S11 E35 Length 27:51 Premiere Date 09/17/16

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Stephen Pruitt on Education Policy

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Work Ready Skills Initiative

S11 E31 Length 27:52 Premiere Date 08/21/16

Mary Matalin and James Carville

S11 E30 Length 27:18 Premiere Date 08/14/16

BBC Anchor Katty Kay

S11 E29 Length 29:02 Premiere Date 08/07/16

Fancy Farm 2016 Preview

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Kentucky's Open Records Law

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Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak

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Pearse Lyons and Family

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"Dreamland" Author Sam Quinones

S11 E20 Length 29:31 Premiere Date 05/29/16

Rethinking Pain Treatment

S11 E19 Length 27:11 Premiere Date 05/22/16

Drug Czar Michael Botticelli

S11 E18 Length 29:01 Premiere Date 05/15/16

Drug Addiction and the Brain

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S11 E16 Length 29:01 Premiere Date 05/01/16

David Adkisson and Jason Bailey

S11 E15 Length 28:16 Premiere Date 04/24/16

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Allison Ball and Ryan Quarles

S11 E12 Length 28:16 Premiere Date 04/02/16

Author Fenton Johnson

S11 E11 Length 27:31 Premiere Date 03/27/16

Rep. Sannie Overly

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Kentucky's Republican Presidential Caucus

S11 E8 Length 27:51 Premiere Date 02/21/16

Education Secretary Hal Heiner

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