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Ohio chief justice compares opioid crisis to polio epidemic

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor

By KEVIN KELLEY
WESTSHORE

Multiple approaches are needed to combat the state’s opioid abuse crisis, which tears apart families, said Maureen O’Connor, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

O’Connor was the guest speaker at a Sept. 5 luncheon meeting of the West Shore Rotary Club, which encompasses Fairview Park, North Olmsted and the West Park section of Cleveland.

The opioid crisis is ravaging Ohio, the state’s chief justice told the Rotarians meeting at the 100th Bomb Group Restaurant on Brookpark Road in Cleveland.

O’Connor quoted from an August report from the Ohio Department of Health stating that deaths from drug overdoses increased from 3,050 in 2015 to 4,050 last year.
Overdoses of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent, and related drugs were involved in 58.2 percent of those deaths.

Fentanyl and other drugs are now being mixed with cocaine, heroin and other drugs and often disguised at oxycontin, another narcotic, O’Connor said. Trafficking in the drug, often manufactured in China, is difficult to stop, she said. The drugs’ potency means very little is needed for an effect and therefore the compounds can be mailed through envelopes, she explained.

O’Connor compared the opioid crisis to the polio epidemic that gripped America in the 1940s and 1950s.

“Like polio 60 years ago, the opioid problem seems intractable, costly and endless,” O’Connor said. “It is easy to become cynical and lose hope. Yet we are wiser for that crusade. We can reflect on polio, and we can imagine people working together to study the problem, attacking it and managing it. And then solving it.”

O’Connor noted Rotary has spent more than $1.5 billion over three decades funding vaccinations around the world to eradicate polio.

Seeing the suffering polio inflicted on its victims inspired action, O’Connor said, but viewing addicts with the same level of compassion may be difficult for some.

“Opioid addicts can be seen as untreatable at best and unredeemable at worst,” she said. “But we cannot forget that those people who appear in our courtrooms, in the emergency rooms, who are being brought back to life in the streets by an EMT administering narcan, are real people with real problems and real families.”

The opioid crisis affects not just addicts but families and children, the chief justice said.

“Substance abuse is the major cause for children being removed from homes in our state,” she said. In 2015 in Cuyahoga County, 75 percent of cases in which children were removed from parental custody were related to parent’s drug abuse, O’Connor said. In Lorain County, that figure was 35 percent. Those children end up in the foster care system, O’Connor said, which is already overburdened.

Cynicism about the problem must be replaced by hope if it is to be solved, the chief justice said.

A year ago, the Ohio Supreme Court convened in Cincinnati for a multistate summit, called the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative, to tackle the problem, which O’Connor said is simultaneously a criminal justice, public health and social services problem.

One effort involves coordination among health care providers across state lines to prevent doctor shopping among addicts seeking prescriptions for pain medication.

Some success has been achieved in preventing doctor-shopping in Ohio and encouraging a reduction in overprescribing pain medication, the chief justice said.

Education is a key component of stopping the problem, O’Connor said. Children need to hear an anti-drug message from multiple sources, she said.

 

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