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Sugar House Journal

Salt Lake County, Riverton at forefront in finding solutions to opioid epidemic

Oct 14, 2019 16h16 ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Riverton is leveraging patent-pending technology from Utah County company NarcX to enable residents to safely dispose of illicit and expired opioids. (Photo courtesy Attorney General Sean Reyes)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

Just a few years ago, opioid addiction was dubbed Utah’s “hidden plague.” Utah was the 10th worst state for opioid addiction.

Opioid addiction is now still a plague, but seems to be anything but hidden, with billboards, town halls and press conferences about the impact of opioids on Utahns of big concern to leaders at the state, county and local levels, as well as within private industry and federal oversight.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. They are either prescription-based—to treat moderate-to-severe pain or for other symptoms such as coughs or even diarrhea—or non-prescription-based. Non-prescription opioids are illegal substances. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, popular slang terms for opioids include oxy, percs and vikes.

Prescription opioids can be made from the plant directly, and others are made by scientists in labs using the same chemical structure. Opioids are often used as medicines because they contain chemicals to relieve pain. These same relaxation properties can make people feel high, which is why they are sometimes used for non-medical reasons. This can be dangerous because opioids can be highly addictive, making overdoses and deaths common.

While people tend to be more aware of the danger of illegal opioids like heroin, many still do not recognize the danger lurking, quite legally, within their own homes in the form of prescription opioids.

Utah on the national map in opioid attack

In early September President Donald Trump announced a nearly $2 billion allocation to stem the nation’s problem with opioid addiction. Utah will receive $24 million in grant funding as part of the federal government’s multiyear strategy.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes continues to refer to the opioid crisis as a “clear and present danger.” The AG has stood as the only state voice in White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs conferences in spotlighting Utah’s unique, multi-pronged strategies to combat the problem, with its “network of professionals” ranging from policy makers to pastors, civic groups to concerned citizens. “It takes everyone,” Reyes said and noted the issue is above partisan politics.

Reyes is currently representing Utah in administrative challenges via the Utah Division of Consumer Protection to Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma. The company’s signature opioid, OxyContin, is considered especially virulent, or dangerous, as an opiate, because of its long-lasting effects and strong tendency to addiction. Short-acting opioids like Vicodin and Percocet lessen pain for a few hours, whereas OxyContin was marketed as longer lasting.

Back in January, Reyes raised eyebrows at the state legislature for dropping the state’s legal case against Purdue and exploring alternate relief. National media outlets reported last month, states are now clamoring for a reported $12 billion mass settlement in flux. 

Salt Lake County at the fore

In September, Salt Lake County became one of six communities in the country to receive a two-year, $600,000 grant to combat opioid addiction. The funds from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance are slated to prevent and reduce overdose deaths. Leadership for the county presence has been credited to Salt Lake County Councilman and South Jordan resident Steve DeBry, who cofounded the Salt Lake County Opioid Task Force.

The prevention efforts will rely on coordinated, cross-sector responses between behavioral health and public safety representatives. The real key? A reliance on the disciplines’ sharing and analyzing real time data. Such data will help better prioritize outreach efforts to high-risk populations and communities.

It is the same sort of data-driven health strategy that propelled Salt Lake County’s Public Health Department to receive a national award in August for its strategy in compactly and effectively containing and combatting a hepatitis A outbreak among homeless and indigent populations and having the disease further spread via public facilities.

Days after announcing the grant, Salt Lake County presented an Opioid Town Hall at downtown’s Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. The event was led by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, a member of the Reyes’ Utah Opioid Task Force.

Riverton rises to the occasion

In the southwestern end of the valley, a newly appointed member of that statewide task force is Riverton’s Mayor Trent Staggs.

Operating as an entrepreneurial municipality, Staggs said he studied the issue of Utah’s opioid problems.

It became apparent to him that local action is not only important, but necessary. “I am no longer willing to make this someone else’s problem,” he said. “To truly tackle this issue, every community must take action to eliminate stockpiling and addiction.”

Staggs engaged Vineyard, Utah-based company NarcX in strategizing a local solution.

Headed by a 30-year veteran of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, NarcX has a patent-pending technology that caught Staggs’ attention: What NarcX says is the only DEA-compliant liquid solution for on-site neutralization and destruction of unused, unwanted or expired drugs.

From there, a full solutions infrastructure involving Intermountain Healthcare, the state’s attorney general, the DEA, and local public safety providers was brainstormed.

In mid-September, Staggs held a press conference in Riverton with all of the private sector and municipal, state and federal collaborators to announce a 24/7 solution for safely disposing out-of-date prescriptions. 

At press time, Riverton officials indicated five “NarcX-inside” medical disposal kiosks would be available for residents by late September to dispose opioids. Kiosks will be available at Riverton City Hall, the Riverton Public Works Department, and 24/7 at the Riverton Police Department, Riverton Fire Station #124, and another location to be determined. City officials indicated the intention to list all relevant information on the city’s website by late September.

Nearly 20 police vehicles will also have one-gallon NarcX depositories available.

Community partner Intermountain Riverton Hospital will additionally offer single-use kits. Residents can go to the Southridge Pharmacy (3723 W. 12600 South) and pick up a NarcX kit (which will fit in a purse, backpack, briefcase, bag, etc.) where they can deposit unwanted pills. NarcX indicates the product is environmentally friendly and can be pitched in any garbage can.

Drop-off at kiosks and the individual-use kits are free of charge to residents. Costs for the project are being covered by Riverton City ($4,563.61) and by IHC (at a cost of about $5 per bottle, according to Riverton officials). 

Residents can additionally do what they have always done—and present their out-of-date meds to public safety officials for disposal. The DEA also conducts twice-yearly drug drop-off events, resulting in 90,000 pounds of out-of-date meds. However, the new Riverton solution avoids problems associated with stockpiling medications, prior to their disposal, closing a potential problem loop right from the start.

“Thinking outside the box” is how DEA District Agent in Charge of the State of Utah Brian S. Besser described the new program.

Besser not only complimented Riverton’s efforts, but those of the whole state, when it comes to battling the opioid crisis. “Out of all the states? Utah is the ‘solution state,’” Besser commended.