June 6, 2017
As the Shelby County chief medical examiner, Dr. Karen Chancellor has a close-up view of the increasing number of lives ended by drug overdoses.
“Every day I come to work there is an overdose death, suspected overdose death or multiple ones,” she told the audience at the Tennessee Opioid Epidemic Forum Tuesday night.
In 2010, there were 11 heroin overdose deaths in Shelby County. By 2016, the number had jumped to 90, Chancellor said.
And 114 people died in 2016 of overdoses from another opioid drug, fentanyl, she said. (The two numbers overlap – some people were using both heroin and fentanyl.)
The Commercial Appeal hosted the forum at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. The other sponsors of the event were BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation as well as the university.
The event drew about 80 people, many of whom cited a personal connection to the issue and expressed strong emotions in the question-and-answer session. One woman said she knows someone who’s looking for treatment but has no insurance. One man said he and his wife had their son arrested – he went through Drug Court and survived. Another man said his son overdosed and died.
Participants engaged in a spirited discussion on topics such as drug legalization – Col. Paul Wright, commander of the Memphis police Organized Crime Unit, says that’s a political question and his job is to enforce the law.
Wright also said Memphis police have created a 10-person unit that investigates heroin deaths and treats them as homicides. That statement drew a critical question from an audience member, who said the policy would discourage people from reporting dangerous overdoses.
Wright said final judgment on the cases is up to the courts. “The courts have to look at your mental state at the time. We look at finding the facts to solve this person’s death.”
He also said arrests won’t solve the problem. “We can’t lock our problem up. I think the fix is getting some help. Getting assistance for these individuals.” In response to a question about stopping drugs from Mexico, he said that’s hard to do. “If you demand something, they’re gonna give it to you.” The key is to cut American demand, he said.
After the forum, he said the Organized Crime Unit gives $250,000 per year to support drug treatment via the Drug Court.
Read the full story on the Commercial Appeal.
Daniel Connolly is an immigration and enterprise reporter at the Commercial Appeal.