EDITOR’S NOTE: The Union-Sun & Journal is recapping the “Top 10” local news stories of the year. This series will continue daily through Dec. 31.

Sadly, much like years past, 2017 saw overdoses from heroin and opioid painkillers continue to rise, despite numerous new initiatives and proposals at nearly every level of government.

Eastern Niagara Hospital announced plans to expand its drug rehabilitation center, as have other inpatient and outpatient treatment centers.

Niagara County legislators floated the possibility of offering drug treatment to inmates at the county jail, as studies show nearly two-thirds of U.S. prisoners have substance abuse problems. The county also launched a public awareness campaign, and formed sub-committees dedicated to addressing the problem. And the county has pursued a lawsuit against the manufacturers and distributors of opioid painkillers, which are widely considered the root cause of the heroin epidemic.

New York state expanded availability and affordability of the opioid antidote Narcan, and provided funding for peer support programs for addicts and veterans, many of whom suffer from substance abuse problems related to the mental injuries of war.

President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

Law enforcement agencies continue to aggressively prosecute drug dealers, while patrol officers still carry Narcan to save those dying of an overdose. 

The Drug Enforcement Administration continues to hold drug take back days, to provide yet another place where prescription opioids can be disposed of, rather than fall into the wrong hands.

Courts offer diversion programs for those who commit crimes to feed their addictions, often only to see those individuals blow their second chance. In the most notable example of this year, Adam Kibler, who staged an armed robbery of ENH last year for drugs, was sentenced to probation after months of jail and treatment — only to reappear before the same judge 10 days later, accused of violating his probation. As is often the case, his violations are allegedly drug-related.

Even recovering addicts have gotten more involved in the battle against overdose deaths. In late August, several recovering addicts spoke powerfully about the agony and grip of addiction, before a crowd that included many families members of addicts who’d died.

And yet, the problem continues to worsen.

In late October, Sheriff Jim Voutour said the county had already seen more overdoses so far in 2017 than in all of last year, 283 to 280. Of those who overdosed this year, 26 died.

If current trends continue, 2018 is sure to see more deaths by drugs.

A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered a mixed message about efforts in Niagara County to battle the epidemic.

The study showed the number of people being given prescription opioids is dropping, while Niagara County remains among the top 10 counties in New York state in terms of opioid prescription on a per capita basis. Niagara’s rate is higher than the rates in metropolitan New York counties such as Bronx and Queens.

Although New York is one of the lower prescribing states, its county-by-county rates show wide variation and highlight the areas where the opioid epidemic presents the greatest challenges. Niagara is one of those areas.

“The (prescribing) numbers are still way too high,” Niagara County Public Health Director Daniel Stapleton said.

States, counties and municipalities will likely continue to search for ways to tackle the problem, but much of what’s driving the rise in deaths lies in the nature of the drugs and of opioid addiction itself.

Authorities say they’re seeing more and more heroin laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be up to 10,000 times as strong as morphine. Often addicts don’t realize their latest batch of drugs is laced with the stuff, or underestimate its power.

Recovery of course is the only way out of addiction, but some methods can put addicts at even higher risk of death. After going through opioid withdrawal and a period of sobriety, an addict’s opioid tolerance plummets, raising the risk they’ll overdose if they relapse. 

And in opioid addiction treatment, relapses are common. 

Public officials, police and treatment specialists have shown a willingness to collaborate, expend enormous time and energy toward the problem, and consider novel new approaches to reduce drug deaths.

But given the extremely powerful nature of these drugs and addictions, it may be years more before their efforts start to reverse these tragic trends.

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