'One pill can kill': National, community leaders address opioid crisis town hall

    FILE - This undated photo shows synthetic opioids and the overdose reversal drug, Narcan. Opioid addiction affects the lives of more than 2 million Americans and caused 50,000 deaths in 2017. (Image: Kris Grogan / USCBP)

    Sinclair Broadcast Group hosted an hourlong town hall in the nation's capital as part of a series of 12 roundtable discussions to raise awareness of America's opioid addiction crisis.

    The opioid town hall, "Your Voice, Your Future," was moderated by Eric Bolling and featured community-based advocates and national policymakers. Bolling and his wife Adrienne became outspoken activists in the fight against opioid addiction after losing their 19-year-old son to an accidental overdose last year. Bolling directed a strong message to parents and children: "One pill can kill."

    Speakers on the panel included White House counselor Kellyanne Conway; Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie; deputy director of Maryland's Opioid Operational Command Center Birch Barron; veteran and Black Hawk Down hero Norman Hooten; former first lady of Maryland and drug court prosecutor Kendel Ehrlich; and Kimberly Lohman Clapp, spokesperson for the Addiction Policy Forum.

    Even with the magnitude of the crisis, Americans' knowledge of the opioid epidemic is still lacking, Kellyanne Conway emphasized. "For all the information overload we have in this country on so many issues, I would say we still suffer from information underload when it comes to some of the very basic and simply points attending the largest drug crisis in our nation's history," she said.

    A leading issue driving the opioid epidemic is the role of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid with between 50 to 100 times the potency of heroin and morphine. A dose of less than two milligrams of fentanyl, about the size of a grain of sand, can be fatal. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a report announcing that fentanyl replaced heroin as the nation's deadliest drug.

    "This is an instant killer," Conway said, noting one of her goals in raising awareness is to make fentanyl a household word.

    Fentanyl has been the single largest contributor to drug overdose deaths in the past year, reaching 28,466, more than half of all fatal opioid overdoses. Fentanyl has also been involved in approximately 40 percent of all cocaine overdose deaths as it is incorporated into other drugs.

    Nearly one in three Americans know someone who is addicted to opioids or who died from an overdose. This year, over 2 million people in the United States will struggle through an addiction to prescription or illicit opioids. Many do not seek treatment.

    "Your Voice, Your Future" is aimed at raising awareness, reducing the stigma of addiction and exploring solutions to the drug crisis, while holding accountable those who bear responsibility.

    Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie is spearheading efforts to reduce the stigma associated with drug abuse among veterans and developing new programs to address veterans physical and psychological pain.

    "The culture has been, in the past, you don't talk about pain, you just mask it," Wilkie told Bolling.

    Veterans are 41 percent more likely to experience chronic pain than their private sector counterparts. For years, VA doctors treated that pain with high-dose opioid painkillers. By 2017, the number of veterans struggling through opioid addictions had skyrocketed to 70,000. The Department of Defense has projected that more than one in ten (11.7 percent) of veterans will misuse prescription drugs.

    "We decided we had to change the culture," Wilkie explained. Now, it is becoming more common for VA hospitals to use non-traditional pain relief methods, such as martial arts, yoga and occupational therapy.

    Wilkie also acknowledged the connection between opioid abuse and the staggering number of veteran suicides. Every day the United States loses 20 veterans to suicide. There are some studies suggesting as many as one-third of veterans' suicides have a substance abuse component.

    Drug abuse, mental health issues, homelessness and suicide are part of a continuum of issues veterans face. "If we can get to the root causes of the pain that afflict our veterans, some of those issues tangential to opioid abuse probably go away," Wilkie said.

    Norman Hooten served in the military and has since dedicated his life to saving fellow veterans from addiction. He recently earned his doctorate in pharmacy and works at the Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Florida. Wooten was a Delta Force operator in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 during the infamous battle better known as Black Hawk Down, which left 18 Americans dead and 73 injured.

    Hooten was compelled to study medicine after seeing friends, who survived combat, lose their lives to opioids. "I was really looking for a way to contribute and provide solutions to the problem," he told Bolling. Hooten didn't realize his mission would bring him to the VA, but he sees the agency as a critical leader in finding solutions to the drug crisis.

    "A large part of the solution to the problem is going to come out of the VA," he insisted. "They're going to set the standard for a lot of others to follow."

    Opioid addiction and overdose deaths have reached epidemic levels in recent years, killing about 140 people every day and fueling a decline in U.S. life expectancy. The Centers for Disease Control estimates roughly 50,000 people died from opioid overdoses last year.

    Tuesday's roundtable discussion at WJLA's studio outside Washington, D.C. addressed the national and regional challenges of opioid addiction. Last year, D.C. had the third highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country, led by the deadly synthetic opioid, fentanyl. In the surrounding area, overdose deaths reached an all-time high last year with 2,282 lives lost in Maryland and 1,227 in Virginia.

    Sinclair will host additional town halls across the country over the coming months. The discussions will feature national and community leaders with firsthand experience battling addiction, providing life-saving interventions and stopping the supply of opioids at their source.

    The next town hall is scheduled for Jan. 10. WOAI will be broadcasting the event live from San Antonio, Texas at the U.S.-Mexico border. Invited guests include Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and his 2018 challenger and potential Democratic presidential candidate, Beto O'Rourke.

    Last month, Sinclair hosted a town hall discussion about opioids at Liberty University attended by 12,000 students. First lady Melania Trump headlined the event to address ways to support families and those affected by drug abuse and educate the public on the dangers associated with opioids.

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