Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
FILE - Members of the Utah House Democratic Caucus Joel Briscoe, Marie Poulsen and Carol Spackman Moss, left to right, speak at a public hearing at the Utah State Board of Education in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — A state lawmaker asked the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee for $300,000 Thursday to develop secondary school curriculum to address the state’s opioid abuse, addiction and overdose crisis.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said the appropriation would be used over two years to update existing curriculum on addiction developed by the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah.

As recently as 2015, Utah ranked seventh in the nation for overdose deaths, said Amy Hawkins, post doctoral fellow at the center.

"I'm sure all of you are aware of the gravity of the opioid crisis in this state, what it costs us in terms of the strain on the health care system and the drug trade that necessitated Operation Rio Grande," Hawkins said.

“We believe that a sustainable, comprehensive approach to this crisis also includes education to promote prevention."

The center proposes to develop a scientifically based public education curriculum for middle and high school-age students, she said.

"High school biology teachers have expressed to us that they want this. There's a demand for this material, but because of the severity and the pervasiveness of crisis has evolved so rapidly, currently Utah teachers don't have access to adequate educational materials that specifically address this epidemic," Hawkins said.

The funding would be used to update and expand an existing educational module developed by the Genetic Science Learning Center on the science of addiction. Its free, evidence-based science curriculum and online teaching materials are used by nearly all Utah high schools, she said.

The money would be used to assemble master science and health teachers in Utah who would learn the latest discoveries about addiction in cell biology and genetics. They would then develop lessons aligned to Utah's existing middle school and health and science standards.

"We think this curriculum is necessary because opioids are different from other drugs. It's not legal for children to possess or consume alcohol, but children are being prescribed opioids. Teenagers get their wisdom teeth removed. They have sports injuries. They have surgeries. They are given these prescription medications by trusted authority figures — their physician, their dentist, their parents," Hawkins said.

The existing curriculum was developed with funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but it "no longer offers a mechanism to apply for educational funding," she said.

The center's evidenced-based science curriculum and online teaching materials are used worldwide.

"We are a unique group, Ph.D.-level scientists, education researchers, graphic designers, instructional designers and teachers. Together we make this website, Learn.Genetics. It is one of the most popular education websites in the world," Hawkins said.

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The center's Learn.Genetics website and its companion website Teach.Geneticsreceive more than 50 million page views annually, she said. It is primarily a resource for middle and high school-age students and teachers, but it is also used by undergraduate students, medical students, patient educators and the general public.

The center is primarily funded by federal grants, and "everything we produce is free and available to the public," Hawkins said.

The legislative committee took no action Thursday, taking the center's request — along with a dozen others — under advisement.