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Officials meet with residents on working together to reduce opioid overdose deaths


The University of Arkansas System’s Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) held an opioid overdose prevention community roundtable Thursday, June 27, at the Newton County Senior Activity and Wellness Center in Jasper. The noon meeting brought local residents together with officials and professionals directly involved in reducing the number of deaths in an on-going opioid overdose crisis in Arkansas. The discussion was made possible through grant funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
SAMHSA evaluated several factors to identify which counties in Arkansas are the most likely to report opioid overdoses. Newton County was deemed an at-risk county. Factors being taken into consideration are a combination of the number of overdose deaths, the number of Naloxone administrations by emergency medical personnel, the opioid prescription rate and the number of reported drug crimes.
The visiting panel of speakers included Arkansas State Drug Director Thomas Fisher, Associate CJI Director Carol Waddle, Project Director Jamal Williams of the Arkansas Department of Human Services Division of Aging Adult and Behavioral Health Services, Peer Support Specialists Rodney Beaver and Jeremiah Woehl both with the Recovery Center of the Ozarks located in Harrison and Probation Officer Shaun Wiseman assigned to the 14th Circuit Judicial District that includes Baxter, Boone, Marion and Newton counties.
The event was an opportunity to form ideas to efficiently educate Newton County about opioid overdose prevention.
Williams welcomed the audience explaining the goals of the roundtable. "We want to make sure we are connected to communities," he said. Attendees received free doses of Naloxone, as well as brochures and other information regarding opioids. "We want to make sure we leave sustainable resources in your hands."
The meeting opened with a video presentation of local data compiled by Andria Blackwood, Ph.D, associate research scientist with the Wyoming Survey and analysis center.
Beaver and Woehl told their personal stories of their overuse of opioids and Wiseman gave his impression on the seriousness of the opioid crisis locally. Thomas then gave his perspective of the problem statewide.
In the statistical report, there was suppressed data in all-drug overdose death rate categories for Newton County (one of 16) in 2021 and 2022. The statewide average per 100,000 persons is 16.0.
However, data did show Newton County's Naloxone administration rate per 100,000 persons by emergency medical services for 2021 and 2022. Newton County is ranked 20th out of 75 counties with a rate of 99.4 administrations in 2022. This is 49% fewer than in 2021 which saw 195.4 administrations.
Newton County is ranked 44th in opioids prescription rate with 79.9 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons in 2022. This is also a decrease from 2021 where data reported the county had 82.3 prescriptions per 100 persons.
Newton County's opioid prescription rate is above the current state average rate of 71.7 prescriptions per 100 persons.
Using all factors, the data places Newton County at number 25 in the top counties at risk in 2021 and 2022. It had a total score of 277.7. The rankings showed neighboring Boone County ranked 10th overall.
Beaver and Woehl gave presentations.
Beaver started by saying he is tired of seeing people die. He is tired of seeing drugs being an issue and fentanyl being so prevalent. With all off the resources the country has why is this still happening?
Though he said he doesn't have the answers his experiences provide perspective.
"I was that guy who was addicted to anything you had to offer." It was the mid-1990s. He is glad fentanyl hadn't been available then because he surely would have taken it and probably would have died because of it.
He has been able to overcome his dependence and today is the director of the Recovery Center of the Ozarks.
Beaver explained the controlling power of opioids by relating a meeting he had with clients recently. One of the clients was asked how many times he had died. That is, how many times had he overdosed and was revived by being given doses of Naloxone. The client responded quickly with an answer. Three times, he said.
Woehl explained he became dependent on opioids after an on-the-job injury. He didn't realize he needed help until he found himself incarcerated.
He became a peer recovery specialist.
He said the people he comes in contact with really want to get help.
The recovery center is working to find the answers to help them. Incarceration isn't the answer, he said.
"There is hope, here," he said.
Wiseman gave law enforcement's perspective. It's easy to put our heads in the sand and pretend there isn't a problem, he said. "I see that locally. I see it on a bigger scale."
Much of Newton County's data is suppressed, but he said problems can be gauged by assessing the data from the larger counties surrounding it.
People living in rural areas don't know help exists. They don't know where to go to ask for it, he said.
There are many ways to go about it. The last should be incarceration, he said.
Law enforcement isn't against people who are in a drug crisis. We are here to help you. Ask for it."

Fisher said he began his career in law enforcement as an agent in the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Since his appointment to his current job by the governor he said he had to transition into the treatment, prevention and recovery aspects that go along with enforcement.
Fisher said he believes the statements made by those who spoke ahead of him in the program.
He said the state is a leader in recovery programs. The utilization of peer recovery specialists is the main reason for that happening.
Opioids including fentanyl coming into the country illegally should be considered weapons of mass destruction. Seizures have increased since 2021 showing a growing increase in fentanyl, and fentanyl-involved deaths.
The last two years the deaths caused by opioids and fentanyl have decreased.
For the last three years, the leading factor that helped is the Naloxone program saturating the state with the overdose reversing drug.
Reducing the stigma on opioid use has also had a positive effect. There is an understanding of the problem faced by friends and family members. It's easier to talk about prevention and treatment.
There are 390 peer recovery specialists in the state and that number is increasing. They are working in drug courts and criminal investigation units, Fisher noted.
There isn't enough recovery houses, he said, but more federal opioid settlement funds is addressing this need.
Enforcement is also putting more efforts to identifying those who are producing the illegal drugs, making seizures and prosecuting traffickers.
Fisher also looked at trends. He noted problems have shifted from central parts of the state to the northwest corner and the eastern corridor.
Alcohol use combined with opioids is also becoming more prevalent. He prescribed educating youth about the dangers of alcohol and mixing it with opioids should be prioritized.
Waddle then followed up with information about the CJI and its campaigns to educate and alert the public about opioids and overdose dangers. It is also calling for the promotion for the distribution of Naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose.
Also, Arkansas's Joshua Ashley-Pauley "Good Samaritan" law protects persons from arrest if they are in possession of drugs and reports an overdose, Waddle said.
To end the meeting Williams asked the audience about the factors driving opioid misuse in the county.
A summary of county activities regarding opioid and other health related issues was presented in a statement presented by Jeff Dezort, chair of the Newton County Hometown Health Initiative (HHI). and its sub-committee Partnership in Prevention (PIP).
PIP has applied for a CDC Drug Free Communities Program grant last April and is expecting to be notified in August if the grant is awarded. If awarded the $125,000 five-year grant, the intitla goat is to address underage user of alcohol and strategies to reduce e opioid misuse in the county.
The panel was informed that Newton and Madison countries have been awarded a grant for an Innovative Readiness Training Mission officially named Ozark Wellness to be conducted by the US Army Reserve July 16-25. The general public is invited to come to the Jasper School campus or the Kingston School campus to take advantage of free services including: Medical health exams, dental services, optometry exams, behavior health care and even veterinarian services.
Patients from any locale can participate and receive the free services without personal identification or insurance. It has been related to county stakeholders that the mission will reveal important information about the quality of heath of the population and how healthcare can be improved. This in-time snapshot should also expose drug use and overuse realities.
Comments from PIP:
• Behavior health care is a special area of need as it is believed it is important to remedy opioid overuse and misuse.
Newton County does not have a certified medical doctor nor a dentist to serve a population of just under 8,000 people. It does have three health clinics supervised from health providers based in other counties.
• There is a need for residential substance treatment and recovery facilities and more peer recovery specialists.
• PIP also supports opioid settlement funds be spent to continue to supply communities with Naloxone kits.
Libraries appear to be ideal places for distribution as they are seen as stigma free zones.
• Settlement funds should be used to mitigate damages opioids have already caused families. Opioids may have reduced family income needed to purchase family health insurance, food, rent or provide other necessities of life, thus, opioids threatens the well-being of the users' dependents, primarily children. Appropriate subsidies should be considered.
• Reform of illegal drug legislation is needed requiring adjudicated offenders to enroll in treatment programs having closer supervision than currently provided by over-worked and under-paid probation officers. At the time of being charged, an opioid law offender should be given access to a peer support specialist.
• A review of adjudicated circuit court cases in Newton County indicate probation and incarceration does not prevent recidivism with many individuals becoming habitual offenders.