Leaders from state and local agencies gathered at Pacific Lutheran University on Feb. 22 to discuss a growing problem in society: the opioid epidemic. Several hundred people were on hand for the Pierce County Opioid Summit, a forum to tell personal stories about the crisis and discuss efforts to address it.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards delivered the welcoming remarks. She called the gathering “a launching point for deeper collaboration and action that will save lives.” Woodards mentioned an e-mail she received from a woman who was homeless and stayed at the city’s stability site. She has now been off opioids for nine months. “This addiction is an epidemic,” the mayor declared. “We can only make our community better together.”
County Executive Bruce Dammeier discussed the recent in point in time count, which collects data on the homeless population. He went on a graveyard shift with social workers. Near the intersection of South 76th and Hosmer streets at 2 a.m., they encountered two men who had just shot up. “When you looked at them, you could not help but see devastation,” he said. Word spread on the streets that the social workers had food to give away, which drew 15 people. All appeared to be under the influence of opioids. “It is hardly a life at all.”
He discussed efforts taken since the first local opioid summit. These include a new crisis stabilization center in Parkland.
U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer said Democrats and Republicans both recognize the severity of the problem and its impact on families. He discussed legislation he co-sponsored that would define addiction as a pre-existing condition for insurance purposes. Kilmer said the ideal number of treatment beds is 40 to 60 for every 100,000 people. In our state, that figure is 8.3 beds. For Pierce County, it is just 2.8.
The most gripping speech was by Sophia Hall, a local mother who lost her daughter Cali Noel Hall to an overdose in 2017. She described this addiction as “an epidemic of monstrous proportion,” noting that it claims the lives of 192 people each day. Before becoming addicted, the girl played soccer and had a zest for life. “Drugs are the great seducer.”
Firefighters Mike Newhouse from Tacoma and Dan Beckman of Central Pierce discussed treating addicts in distress. Central Pierce administers Naloxone, which counteracts the effects of an overdose, on average once every other day.
Jody Brooks, director of Community and Family Services with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, said 80 percent of heroin addicts begin by taking pain pills. Her facility had a client overdose on fentanyl the previous day, she noted.
County Prosecutor Mary Robnett discussed alternative court programs, which focus on treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems. “We will not arrest or prosecute our way out of this problem.”
A faith leader perspective was presented by Anthony Steele, pastor of Allen AME Church and Dan Whitmarsh, pastor of Lakebay Community Church. Whitmarsh mentioned driving by a known drug house in his rural part of the county during the recent snow. No garbage trucks or postal vehicles ventured out in the rough weather, but people were still driving to pick up heroin. Whitmarsh said his church hosts a Narcotics Anonymous group.
“If you want to reach the black community, you must go through the church,” Steele told the audience. He said the church is a place where people can talk about issues they may not elsewhere.
The keynote address was delivered by William C. Moyers, vice president of public affairs and community relations for Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. He discussed his background with addiction and how he got clean and sober. Four years ago, he had dental surgery. He was prescribed opioid painkillers by doctors who knew his background. Moyers said he felt the addictive pull of the Percocet. Moyers also discussed plans for a Betty Ford clinic in Bellevue.