Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Spencer Austin, chief criminal deputy for the Utah Attorney General's Office, left, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, Sen. Mike Lee and Brian Besser, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge in Salt Lake City, talk to members of the media at an Opioid Task Force meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 1, 2018.

Our nation is struggling through one of the worst public health crises in its history. Approximately 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, the most recent year of national data. Opioids accounted for nearly two-thirds of those deaths.

This plague has not spared Utah. In fact, ours is one of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis. On average, nearly six Utahns die weekly from opioid overdoses. Opioid deaths now outnumber deaths from motor vehicles and firearms. And three Utah rural counties were identified recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as being among the most vulnerable nationwide.

This epidemic has affected every community in our great state; urban and rural, rich and poor, churchgoing and not. Nearly every family, no matter where they come from, has a story about how this tragedy has affected their lives.

But in all of this alarming news, there is hope. There is a power in the togetherness of our common suffering. Through our shared pain and experience, we can work unitedly to identify solutions. In fact, we have already started.

Last May, building on important work done over years by many in our state, and complementing critical efforts of groups like the Utah Coalition for Opioid Overdose Prevention and Utah Department of Health, two of us — agent Brian Besser and Attorney General Sean Reyes — united leaders from many backgrounds and formed the Utah Opioid Task Force to expedite and enhance efforts to save Utah lives.

The Opioid Task Force assembled experts from diverse fields, including medicine, law, treatment, recovery, law enforcement and business. It includes physicians, pharmacists, legislators, local officials, educators, persons who have recovered from addiction and families affected by it.

Our executive committee is comprised of leaders like Utah Naloxone advocate Dr. Jennifer Plumb of the University of Utah and Speaker of the House Greg Hughes. Other voices strengthening the task force include: Jenny McKenzie (filmmaker), Steve Eliason (legislator/executive), Patrick Rezac (One Voice Recovery), Mary Jo McMillen (USARA recovery advocate), UFC star Court McGee and former BYU football player turned broadcaster Alema Harrington (both overcame opioid addictions), Carol Spackman Moss (legislator/educator), Jeanetta Williams (NAACP) and many more.

Immediately, the task force produced results that have benefited all Utahns. Agent Besser, a tireless advocate for our state, spearheaded an initiative landing Utah as the first jurisdiction to receive statewide funding from the groundbreaking DEA 360 grant program. Similarly, Attorney General Reyes has worked closely with the White House and federal agencies to find solutions, fix federal regulations, protect Utah and bring resources back home.

Besser, Reyes and other Opioid Task Force members travel the state educating citizens on the perils of opioid dependency, the need to remove shame and judgment from opioid conversations, and the importance of treating addiction as a disease the way we would cancer or diabetes.

The task force has promoted Naloxone use by first responders, Jenny McKenzie’s acclaimed Sundance film “Dying in Vein” and the DEA film “Chasing the Dragon.” Members of the task force work with physicians to change prescribing practices, have supported several successful DEA and attorney general investigations and prosecutions of drug cartel players, and support various treatment and recovery services. And recently, we hosted a Utah Opioid Roundtable with USDA and White House senior officials sponsored by Opioid Task Force, Rural Affairs co-chairs, state USDA Director Randy Parker and Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney.

Through all our work, we have learned that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. While there are definitely criminals in this story — such as the drug dealers who greedily sacrifice lives for profit — there are many more innocent people who were drawn into opioid addiction after a work or sports accident or a simple medical procedure.

These people need our love and support. But there is more we can do to make sure innocent people aren’t swept up in this epidemic. Many doctors have been overprescribing opioids for years because they have underestimated how addictive they are. Likewise, patients have come to believe that opioid prescriptions are the best way to deal with their pain, even when other pain-management methods may be better suited to their needs.

Thankfully, opioid prescriptions are declining as we spread awareness about their destructive potential. In fact, due in large part to pressure by members of the task force, many pharmacies have recently begun to self-impose limitations on filling even a valid physician’s scrip. We also have partnered with federal, state and local governments to help promote Utah Take Back Day, a biannual effort to collect unused prescription medications lying around in people’s homes. Just this past April, more than three dozen Utah law enforcement agencies removed more than 17,000 pounds of unused prescription drugs from Utah homes.

These are significant achievements, but there is so much more we can do. That is why we are pleased to welcome Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to the Utah Opioid Task Force as a co-chair. Sen. Lee has shed light on our opioid problem through his Social Capital Project, which produced an in-depth study on the numbers behind the opioid crisis.

According to the Social Capital Project report, in the 1960s, 80 percent of heroin addicts began addictions with heroin, itself, while today 75 percent of heroin addicts began abusing drugs with opioids obtained through a doctor or through someone else’s prescription. The report also found that 40 percent of opioids taken by opioid abusers were obtained freely from friends and family with legal prescriptions.

These sobering findings underscore the importance of reducing opioid prescriptions on the front end and disposing of unused prescriptions on the back end while getting desperately needed treatment and recovery to those already caught in the cycle of addiction.

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Just as importantly, Sen. Lee’s Social Capital Project has discovered that individuals who are disconnected from their families and who either never married or are divorced are much more susceptible to opioid addiction. We need to find ways to reach these individuals and reintegrate them into our communities.

This is a fight we can win. We know this because Utah already is seeing results. Our state was one of just 14 where opioid deaths actually fell last year.

Still, we need to keep up the work and identify new ways to combat this epidemic. So please join our effort. You can help us solve this problem by sharing your experiences and ideas. The task force is here to listen and act.

Only through our combined efforts will Utah beat the opioid epidemic.