DMH Partners with Health and Safety Agencies for Opioid Town Halls

A town hall meeting in Brandon on May 23 addressed the growing impact of opioids in communities across the state. The meeting was hosted in a partnership with the Department of Mental Health, the Bureau of Narcotics, the Board of Pharmacy, and the Mississippi offices of the FBI.

It was the first of several that are taking place throughout the state this summer and fall, all of which include representatives from all of those agencies, as well as local and county representatives. A panel discussion at the meeting also had representatives from the medical and pharmaceutical fields, but the featured speaker of the night was Aden Giles, metro area resident who shared how her family and her life had been tragically impacted by addiction and opioids.

First though, Lt. John Harless with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics made sure attendees knew just how large of a problem opioid addiction has become as it has worked its ways into the lives of Mississippians and Americans, leaving a trail of broken people and families in its wake.

“I’m about to start my twentieth year with MBN,” Lt. Harless said. “When I started, heroin was something that maybe we saw a little bit of back in the ‘70s. When I was trained, nobody told me we’ve got to get ready to see heroin. We were dealing with the crack epidemic, and then we dealt with the meth labs, but illegal opioids are growing, and they continue to grow.”

Heroin, Lt. Harless said, is the most common illegal opioid, but that’s not the limit of the current problem. The problem ranges from prescriptions like hydrocodone and oxycodone to powerful synthetics like fentanyl, and even to newer synthetic drugs that have popped up.

One such synthetic drug is known as U-47700. About eight times stronger than morphine, it’s one of the drugs that appears to have been in the system of rock legend Prince when he died of an overdose in 2016. The first time it showed up in Mississippi was in Rankin County, not long before this town hall meeting.

Prescription drugs are a huge problem at the moment. Mississippi has the fifth highest rate of hydrocodone prescriptions in the country, Lt. Harless said.

“People prefer prescription drugs if they can get them, and if they can afford them,” he said.

Drug dealers capitalize on this demand, using pill presses that create counterfeit pharmaceuticals. Pills created from this may look like a hydrocodone, but instead be nothing but a mixture of cornstarch and enough fentanyl to kill someone.

“So what happens? You have someone who is a 15-pill-a-day addict, and they get their hands on these pills and take five of them, and five minutes later they’re overdosing,” Lt. Harless said. “If nobody gets there in time, that’s a person who becomes a statistic, and it’s a battle we lose.”

Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher shared his views on addiction and treatment, which have been honed through decades of experience in law enforcement, including as Commissioner at the Mississippi Department of Corrections and as Director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

“This is not just a law enforcement issue,” Fisher said. “It’s not just public safety. It’s a public health issue. I’ve been in law enforcement for four decades, more than 30 years in narcotics. As a young narcotics officer, I believed that those who were suffering from the disease of addiction were weak-minded, low rent individuals who didn’t want to do any better and they could quit any time they wanted to.”

Now though, he said he’s ashamed to say he ever thought like that. He’s learned through his career that addiction is a disease.

“Law enforcement’s purpose for being here is not to figure out how to arrest more people. It’s how to arrest less people,” Fisher said. “We’re not going to arrest ourselves out of this situation. We need to look at things differently.”

Panel participants from the medical community also shared their thoughts on this growing problem. Pharmacist Trey Crawford reminded everyone that the people who become addicted to these pills are not bad people; they’re friends and neighbors who are getting legitimate prescriptions filled for legitimate needs.

But he said that as he looked at the crowd and saw longtime colleagues he’s known for years, he has no doubt they ever imagined they would have been filling the number of prescriptions for opioids they fill these days. When a prescription for Percocet would have been unique earlier in his career, he said he’d filled multiple prescriptions for 120 pills that day alone.

Dr. Scott Hambleton, Medical Director for the Mississippi Physician Health Program at the Mississippi State Medical Association, said physicians need more focus in medical school on addiction. He said most medical students probably receive no more than a handful of hours on the topic while in school.

He noted that someone becoming abstinent from a drug, such as during a prison sentence, does little to address the underlying issues that may have contributed to addiction.

“Treatment is necessary,” he said. “You can’t just have someone be abstinent and expect them to stay that way. There is some really good hope out there. For years, we’ve been scared to talk about the success of our programs because of the tremendous stigma of addiction.”

But one person who wasn’t scared to talk about addiction was Aden Giles. She was there to talk about the ways she and her family have been impacted by opioid addiction. While she struggled with alcohol and drugs for much of her adult life, her son Mitch grew up to face struggles of his own with an addiction to opioids.

Her addiction led her to lose everything she said she cared about – her siblings, her parents, her job. A little more than two years ago, she decided to enter treatment.

“I walked into those doors and said I’m going to do it all, no matter what they tell me to do. It’s either do what they tell me to do or die from this disease,” she said. “And I may die pretty quickly, because I was going downhill.”

She went through primary treatment, and then secondary treatment, and then sought out living arrangements in a sober living home. While she was beginning recovery, her son’s addiction began to get worse.

“One night he was coming over to my apartment and I saw him, and I said ‘I would give up my sobriety for you to have it. I’ve lived my life and it’s ok for me to be gone. I would give it up,’” Giles said.

It didn’t happen right away, but he eventually began to turn his life around. He became known as the poster child for recovery in his treatment program. In one letter Giles read from, her son wrote her to thank her for the life she had given him, and wrote about his hopes for a life in recovery. He was happy to be back together with both of them living their lives in sobriety.

Months went by until one day Mitch saw one of his old friends, someone who used to sell him drugs. Several hours later, Mitch’s family was notified that he had died of an overdose.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked,” Aden said. “But you know, I’ve never been angry with him relapsing and being weak at that moment, because every alcoholic and drug addict knows that thought comes across your mind every so often.

“To have that one drink. To sit outside and have that glass of wine. I can’t have it, because I know where it will lead me.”

She would never give up the six months she got to spend with her son in recovery, she said. It was six months of happiness she and Mitch would have never had. Her own recovery has brought back the relationships she had lost with the rest of her family. It has shown her a life that she never knew was out there.

“As they tell me all the time, just stick around until the miracle happens,” she said.

And despite the tragic loss of her son, through her recovery, that miracle has “happened to me.”