Opioid abuse has reached epidemic levels in many parts of the country, and the number of addicted users, overdoses and opioid-related deaths in South Carolina is on the rise. We hope a state legislative panel charged with studying this growing problem can come up with effective ways to combat it.
The S.C. House Opioid Abuse Prevention Study Committee, formed by House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, met for the first time last week. Lucas told legislators it is their “job to figure out how to best protect South Carolinians from this disease.”
His reference to this epidemic as a “disease” is reassuring. We cannot curb the abuse of addictive prescription painkillers – which often leads to the use of heroin – simply by stepping up law enforcement efforts.
While law enforcement officers play a vital role helping to control trafficking in heroin and other addictive drugs, this epidemic is largely a public health problem that must be confronted on many different levels. The primary goal, after all, is to save lives.
Lucas told the commission that nationally, more people die from opioid overdoses each year than from car accidents. The toll has reached 91 people a day.
South Carolina has not yet been hit as hard as other states by this scourge. Nonetheless, in 2015, the last year that complete figures were available, 573 S.C. residents died from opioid abuse, 69 more than in the previous year.
Twenty-five York County residents died from opioid abuse in 2015, and growth of the epidemic in the Upstate is among the highest in the state.
South Carolina took an important step in 2014 by passing the Overdose Prevention Act, making Naloxone, a drug used to reverse the effects of an overdose, more available when and where it is needed. The law allows first responders and other caregivers to administer Naloxone when they believe a person is suffering from an overdose.
State lawmakers already have considered a number of bills, some of them introduced this year, to curb the use of prescription opioids and heroin. One bill would require high school students to receive instruction on the dangers of drug abuse.
The so-called “Good Samaritan” bill would provide limited immunity from prosecution for drug users who call 911 for someone who experiences a drug or alcohol-related overdose. Another proposal would require doctors to help maintain a prescription drug database monitoring the number of opioid medications their patients were prescribed by other physicians.
The state already has a prescription drug tracking system, but it covers only patients on Medicaid.
The opioid epidemic is overwhelming parts of the nation. In Ohio, for example, the hardest-hit state in the nation, overdose deaths rose to 3,050 in 2016.
South Carolina needs to act quickly to prevent an upsurge here. Formation of the House study committee is one good way to do that.