ONLY ON KOLD: Tucson's War on Heroin

Published: Apr. 26, 2017 at 12:23 PM MST|Updated: Feb. 28, 2018 at 12:20 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Every day, Arizonans are losing their lives to drugs.

More than a year ago, Gov. Doug Ducey committed doing absolutely everything to attack the growing problem.

In his 2016 State of the State address, Ducey announced a Substance Abuse Task Force.

"I'm bringing together a team of leading substance abuse experts, recovering addicts, and providers to find the best treatments and reduce barriers to care," Ducey said.

Since then, the Task Force handed down 104 recommendations.

For people like Michele Harris, turning those recommendations into reality can't come soon enough.

Harris lost her daughter, Beckey Harris to drug abuse in 2015.

Beckey left behind a 3-year-old boy Seth.

"She was actually using the moment he was born," said Michele Harris.

Heroin was Beckey's biggest demon. Not only was she using on the day Seth was born, but every day leading up to his birth.

Because of it, Seth is suffering from severe developmental delays.

Seth spent the first month of his life in intensive care. (Source: Tucson News Now)

The first month of his life was spent in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

"He would scream, he had blisters … he was bleeding and shaking," explained Harris.

Today, Seth is considered failure to thrive. He's been diagnosed with nonverbal autism and sensory processing disorder.

"He just doesn't talk," said Harris.

Not only does he struggle to speak, but he also has a hard time eating.

With the help of a half-dozen specialists, his grandmother hopes he will one day be able to talk about his love for Mickey Mouse and race cars.

One year after Seth was born, drugs took hold of Beckey's heart and brain.

"I really thought there would've been a lot of wake up calls. She had two heart surgeries and a stroke," Harris said.

Her life ultimately ended in January 2015 after her brain began to hemorrhage and herniate.

"It's still hard."

Beckey was only 29-years-old.

"She really fought it … and it won."

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Her death marks one of more than a thousand tied to drugs in the last three years in Pima County.

"We do have an epidemic of drug abuse especially in heroin," explained Mazda Shirazi, Medical Director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center.

Shirazi says the epidemic is not only ending lives, but it's also putting a lot of pressure on the lives of others.

"Our community's under pressure from our law enforcement and our EMS," said Shirazi. "They respond to lots of calls because of heroin or oxycodone. It's taking lots of resources away."

In an email, the Tucson Fire Department says it's responded to 2,184 calls since January of 2017 related to "person down" or "overdose/poisoning."

The state's ongoing drug problem comes at a cost.

Take a look at the breakdown for the Pima County Adult Detention Complex:

1,845 -- Total number of inmates.

576 -- Number of inmates jailed for drug offenses.

$299 -- Cost for an inmate's first day in jail.

$89 -- Cost per day to keep an inmate at the complex.

(Source: Raycom Media)

Where does the state stand in solving this problem?

Since the task force came out with its 104 recommendations, some of which require lawmaker approval, no groundbreaking legislation has been proposed.

However, there will be a made to tweak made to existing legislation this session making Naloxone not only available to emergency providers but also now over-the-counter to individuals requesting the drug. Naloxone reverses the effects of opioid drug overdoses

I reached out to the Chair of the Substance Abuse Task Force, Debbie Moak, she said their first focus is to secure funding to fight drug abuse in Arizona. To reach that goal, some funds are being reallocated.

For example, more than $3 million is being sent to Arizona high schools to support drug prevention programs, and some money is expected to be made available to increase methadone programs across the state.

There's also a push to secure money to ensure treatment for addicted and mentally-ill inmates, who have completed their prison terms. The goal is to safeguard a successful transition out of prison, potentially reducing recidivism rates.

There's another recommendation to limit the length of time opioids can be prescribed as an immediate option to pain. At this time, no legislative initiatives have been introduced, but the Governor did sign an executive order instituting this policy for the State's employee health plans.

In an email, the leading lawmaker on the Substance Abuse Task Force said this:

"Bottom line, the Substance Abuse Task Force greatly increased awareness of the problems related to substance use disorders, identified the areas of concern, what entities and agencies should be communicating to develop policy recommendations, but in terms of groundbreaking legislation, we are just getting started," said Kate McGee.

The victims of drug abuse, hope Arizona presses on no matter the cost.

"At the very least, make it easier for them to get help." said Harris.

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