needle exchange heroinIn the wake of a rapid spike in fatal opioid overdoses, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced Wednesday that Louisville has been selected as the fourth city to take part in its “360 Degree Strategy,” a comprehensive law enforcement and prevention program to assist cities dealing with a heroin epidemic.

The announcement was made at a press conference in Louisville featuring Timothy Plancon — the special agent in charge of the DEA’s Detroit field office — and U.S. Attorney John Kuhn of Kentucky’s Western District, as well as Mayor Greg Fischer and LMPD Chief Steve Conrad.

The DEA’s 360 Degree Strategy is a three-fold approach to dealing with the opioid epidemic, focusing on increasing prosecutions of heroin traffickers, pushing for responsible prescribing of painkillers by doctors, and proactively educating the public about the dangers of opioid abuse and options for addiction treatment.

“We are striving to find innovative strategies to confront the epidemic of heroin and prescription drug addiction in our society,” said Plancon. “DEA is collaborating with professionals from law enforcement, drug prevention, drug treatment, and the medical community to attack this problem from a holistic approach.”

The law enforcement component of this strategy will focus on prosecuting traffickers who sell heroin to people who then have a fatal overdose. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, DEA and LMPD have created a Heroin Investigation Team that will investigate overdoses in order to develop federal cases against such dealers, who would face a mandatory 20-year sentence. The Heroin Investigation Team is initially supported with federal funding to allow overtime pay for six LMPD narcotics detectives, who will be deputized by the DEA as federal officers.

“I have a message for heroin dealers,” said Kuhn. “You are killing people in this city from every walk of life. From this point forward, if you sell heroin that causes an overdose, we will bring federal charges against you that will get you a minimum of 20 years in prison with no parole. The trafficking in this deadly poison must end.”

To drive home the message of why an aggressive approach is needed, Kuhn’s office also released startling overdose statistics from the first six months of 2016 in Jefferson County, showing that the upward trend of last year is now increasing at an even more rapid pace. Whereas Louisville first responders had to administer the opioid overdose antidote naloxone to 354 patients in the first half of 2015, that number more than tripled in the same period this year, reaching 1,148.

While the total number of fatal drug overdoses in Jefferson County last year increased by 31 percent to 268, there were 183 in the first half of 2016, which is on pace to be a 36 percent increase. Though the number of fatal overdoses attributed to heroin roughly matches last year’s pace, the rise in deaths involving fentanyl — a much more powerful opioid that is increasingly being cut into heroin supplies — is alarming. In all of 2015 there were 39 overdose deaths attributed to fentanyl in the county, but in the first half of 2016 there already have been 99 — setting a pace for a five-fold increase. In the same time period this year, fatal overdoses where both heroin and fentanyl were present have already nearly doubled the total from all of 2015.

Figures provided by Metro Emergency Medical Services
Figures provided by Metro Emergency Medical Services

Dr. Toni Ganzel, dean of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, also spoke on the diversion control component of the 360 Degree Strategy, outlining a new curriculum for students that incorporates new CDC guidelines on limiting opioid prescribing — as legally obtained prescription painkillers are often the point of entry for opioid addiction, which then evolves to abuse of the cheaper, more available and deadlier heroin.

The community outreach component of the 360 Degree Strategy includes resources and programs for educators and parents so that young people can be informed about the dangers of opioid abuse, as well as a yet-to-be-formed community alliance of civic leaders to help spread the message of prevention and highlight addiction treatment options. In December, the DEA and U.S. Attorney’s Office plan to host a summit where such civic leaders will “look for sustainable, impactful efforts” to combat the opioid epidemic.

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]


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