The top federal prosecutor for the western half of Kentucky has issued an unprecedented call for action against the growing threat of drug addiction.
U.S. Attorney John E. Kuhn Jr. said state and local governmental agencies, the private sector and nonprofit organizations must work together more closely — and spend more money — to combat the region’s primary public health and safety crisis.
Louisville had 362 overdose deaths last year, or three times as many as homicides, Kuhn said.
The spike prompted Kuhn to host a summit in December together with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the University of Louisville to bring together stakeholders including representatives from law enforcement, education and health care.
As a result of that summit, the U.S. attorney on Tuesday issued a 40-page report to provide potential solutions to the crisis.
“The problem is enormous,” Kuhn told Insider on Tuesday, “and I don’t think people often appreciate the magnitude.”
While some stakeholders are doing very good work to address the epidemic, Kuhn said some critical elements toward a solution are missing.
“We have come to understand the public response — and especially the government response — has been profoundly inadequate to address the urgent demands,” Kuhn wrote in the report.
The US attorney told Insider that the community must provide more treatment options if it hopes to solve the problem.
The Healing Place, a local nonprofit that helps people with addictions, turns away 400 people every month because it does not have enough room to treat them, he said.
“We’ve got to do better,” Kuhn said. “If you’re looking for treatment, you need to be able to get it.”
The community at large also plays a role in this, he said, because it continues to place a stigma on addiction. Instead, addictions should be viewed like any other health problem, he said.
Kuhn also said that the state of Kentucky must build a comprehensive data collection, analysis and sharing system, because current data collections are inadequate and do not provide stakeholders with a good basis on which to implement public policy.
“You can’t make public policy without good information,” he said. “We need evidence.”
More detailed and timely information would allow communities to more quickly respond to health problems — such as outbreaks of HIV or hepatitis — and public safety issues, such as a spike in overdose deaths.
To reduce the frequency of addictions, Kuhn said schools must implement comprehensive substance abuse education into their curricula. Extensive research indicates that consuming any brain-stimulating substance, whether heroin, marijuana, alcohol or cigarettes, before age 21 predisposes people to addiction, he said.
While baby boomers grew up at a time during which it was culturally accepted as a right of passage that young people would “experiment” with drugs, science shows that such behavior puts young people at risk of addiction and death.
“We really need to change the thinking on this,” Kuhn said.
The U.S. attorney said that while some of the actions required to tackle this problems cost money, he said inaction costs even more.
Studies show that for every dollar communities spend on treating addiction, they save $4 in health care costs and another $7 in criminal justice costs, he said.
“This is a public health problem. We’re going to have to come up with a public solution. And that means money unfortunately,” Kuhn said.
“This problem won’t go away otherwise,” he said.