Overdose deaths across Louisiana — including in Baton Rouge and New Orleans — outnumbered homicides for the first time in 2016, a development that ought is rightly alarming the public and officials, who have watched a new wave of addictions to prescription painkillers ensnare people at every level of society.
Once prescriptions run out, and the medical profession and state law have made it more difficult for people to scam their way into multiple scripts for painkillers, illegal purchases of the drugs or heroin have become the outlet for the addicted.
More potent drugs, including variants of the powerful prescription painkiller fentanyl, are accounting for more of the overdose deaths.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed into law separate bills in the Legislature by state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, and state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, aimed at toughening standards for pain prescriptions and better advise people in pain about the dangers of overuse of pills. Another measure by state Rep. Walt Leger III sets up a state council to consider further steps.
At the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Coroner Beau Clark praised the legislative responses to the problem but noted the rise in overdose deaths in major cities across the state.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, where Clark works, there were 89 overdose deaths compared to 83 homicides in 2016 — but voters rejected in December a small millage to operate a center for the mentally ill and addicted taken into custody by police.
In New Orleans, there were 211 deaths from drug overdoses in 2016, a 129 percent jump from the 92 deaths in 2015. In comparison, there were 174 homicides last year, Coroner Jeffrey Rouse reported.
"When you're losing more people to opioids than homicides in New Orleans, you know you have a problem," Attorney General Jeff Landry said.
Locking up addicts in jails we see as a short road to bankruptcy for public jurisdictions. Locking up dealers is a legitimate response, but the costs, as well as the social implications of criminalizing such widespread addictive disorders, should be daunting to everyone in public life.
Clark, a Republican, said that more must be done to make treatment available across society. "Let's put illnesses where they belong, in a medical setting and not a prison," he said.
He noted that his office sees overdose deaths from every level of society, rich and poor, young people and retirees. "It has no specific demographic," he added.
Across the state, communities are wrestling with the problem. We are encouraged at the national attention to the issue, including at the presidential level in the last few years. But as clinicians like Clark tell us, treatment for a substance abuse disorder is not an overnight process but involves modifying behavior.
"There is a large number of people who need our help," Clark said. He is right.