Mar 2, 2023 - News

Arkansas grapples with fentanyl crisis

Ray Donovan, chief of operations of the Drug Enforcement Administration , stands in front of "The Faces of Fentanyl" wall, which displays photos of Americans who died of a fentanyl overdose, at the DEA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, on July 13, 2022. Photo: Agnes BUN / AFP

Drug overdoses are surging in Northwest Arkansas — in line with a national trend tied to the rise of fentanyl.

Why it matters: Fentanyl overdoses are the No. 1 cause of death in people ages 18-49 nationwide, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Two-thirds of overdose deaths in 2021 involved the painkiller.

Zoom in: The number of fatal drug overdoses in Benton and Washington counties nearly doubled the past three years — from 42 in 2020 to 74 in 2022, according to data from the county coroners.

  • Overdose deaths involving fentanyl more than quadrupled in Washington County, from four in 2020 to 17 in 2022. The drug was a factor in about half the county's fatal overdoses last year.

Between the lines: NWA emergency responders are increasingly using naloxone to reverse overdoses. The Rogers Fire Department administered the antidote 136 times in 2022, compared to 96 two years earlier, city Emergency Medical Services Program Manager Nick Mason told Axios.

Flashback: In 2021, the Arkansas State Crime Lab performed autopsies on 496 drug overdose deaths, compared to 207 in 2016. About 59% of the 2021 deaths involved fentanyl — up from 4% in 2016, according to a recently filed bill.

The big picture: The sheer amount of fentanyl showing up in the U.S., combined with a lack of comprehensive, real-time overdose data, has overwhelmed the U.S. government.

  • John Walters, who served as drug czar during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, told The Washington Post it's "like tracking the epidemic by visiting cemeteries."
  • In the meantime, officials have resorted to awareness campaigns talking about the drug's potency and responders' increased use of naloxone.
  • Fentanyl is a synthetic drug that's 50 times more potent than heroin and is often laced in other drugs.

How legislators are addressing the issue

The Arkansas legislative session is in full swing. Here are the fentanyl-related measures proposed so far:

SB283 and HB1456 would make delivering fentanyl "death by delivery" if a person dies from taking the drug, carrying a minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum of 60 years.

  • Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin announced the bill in mid-February.
  • Sanders appointed Tom Fisher, a former overdose response strategy analyst for the Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which covers Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, as the state's new "drug czar."
  • The state House Judiciary Committee will hear the bill at 10am Thursday.

SB40 would legalize fentanyl test strips. State Sen. Justin Boyd (R-Fort Smith), the bill's sponsor, told Axios that Arkansas prosecutors are already choosing not to bring action against people for possessing the strips — considered drug paraphernalia under current state law. The strips could prevent overdoses because people could know whether another substance contains fentanyl.

  • The measure is deferred, with the expectation it will be included in an upcoming public safety bill, Boyd said.

HB1514 would require public high schools and public colleges to have naloxone available on campus to reverse drug overdoses.


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