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Opioids Remain A Big Killer In Nevada

Addiction to heroin and prescribed painkillers remain a scourge in Nevada.

Nevada has one of the highest death rates from opioid overdoses in the country.

Last week, the federal government granted Nevada $5.6 million to fight opioid addiction.

To shed more light on the problem, the Clark County Medical Society Alliance is holding a town hall meeting tonight. The keynote speaker is Sam Quinones, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote the best-seller, “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.”

Quinones blames pharmaceutical companies more than the illegal drug trade for the current national epidemic.

“This is the first time that a drug problem in America didn’t start with street peddlers or street drug dealers or mafias. It started instead with doctors buying into an idea and running with it,” he told KNPR's State of Nevada.

Quinones said during the 90s aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies sold the idea that no one should be in pain, and more specifically, that Oxycontin was "virtually non-addictive."

In reality, the drug has extremely high levels of opiate. The high levels of opiate brought up people's tolerance levels and many shifted to heroin when their doctors stopped prescribing the drug and the street price of oxycontin was too high.

“No Mexican heroin trafficking in America today would have a market like the kind they have today without this massive marketing and this massive selling of the idea that we’re a country in pain and that we had the tools to treat it and these tools were known as opiate painkillers and we were not using them aggressively enough,” Quinones said.

He also says the American health consumer is partially to blame because people wanted to believe in a world without pain.

“We wanted a life free of pain, very tantalizing luxurious idea that you can live a life free of pain,” he said, but that is an unrealistic expectation. 

He says while drug companies have changed their marketing about these opioids and no longer claim "they're virtually non-addictive" and instead include a long disclaimer about how addicting they really are, “what I'm not sure has changed at all is their willingness to step up and provide other solutions for what they helped cause." 

Quinones said companies need to be more accountable and should be pouring money into treatment, education and more to combat the problem. He said there needs to be a "community of solutions to the problem." He said schools, churches, community groups, casinos, and lawmakers all need to come up with multiple ways to attack the problem because there is no quick solution.

“We want quick solutions to complicated problems and this is an extraordinarily complicated problem,” he said.

State Sen. Patricia Farley, I-Las Vegas is one the of several lawmakers trying to address the opioid problem in Nevada. Farley has a bill to expand surveys of students in high schools to determine what kind of drugs students are using.

“I think to understand a problem we have to understand the perceptions and then the behaviors around those perceptions,” Farley said.

She wants the survey to lead the nation in finding out what kids know about these kinds of drugs, how they're using them and how they're talking to their friends about them. 

Another bill would allow schools to use opioid antagonists – drugs to be used to counteract a drug overdose. Farley said people will be surprised at the level of opioid drug use in our schools, “I think that’s the big secret that parents don’t understand what the actual use and abuse is.”

Jaqueline Nguyen-Lee and her group the Clark  County Medical Society Alliance also wants to be part of the "community of solutions," which is why it is hosting the town hall to kick off an initiative for education and outreach. 

“We need really a true alliance with all the stakeholders in Southern Nevada,” she said. 

Nguyen-Lee said some people may not even know that they have a connection to the problem, but they most likely do.

“I think that everybody has a connection. Here is Southern Nevada one person dies every day from an opiate overdose,” she said, and even if you don't know someone personally struggling with addiction, the epidemic is taking "a toll on our society, our social resources." 

Opioid Town Hall

Thursday, May 4

6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. 

West Charleston Library, 6301 W. Charleston Blvd. 



Sam Quinones, author: Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic;   Jacqueline Nguyen-Lee, Clark County Medical Society Alliance; State  Sen. Patricia Farley, I-Las Vegas

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.