As they have grappled with years of rising opioid- and heroin-related death totals in the New Orleans area, authorities have imprisoned violent drug dealers, prosecuted doctors who overprescribe medications to addicts, and armed first responders with an antidote that can reverse the effects of opiate overdoses and saves lives daily.
Yet the epidemic is far from under control, so various federal and local officials gathered at New Orleans City Hall on Tuesday to unveil a strategy aimed at connecting addicts with treatment, counseling and faith-based services while educating schoolchildren and their families about avoiding substance abuse.
The Drug Enforcement Administration chose New Orleans — along with adjacent Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes — to be the 16th community to try out its so-called 360 Strategy in part because the city has long had relatively high rates of violence and illegal narcotics use, said Brad Byerley, the DEA’s special agent in charge of the New Orleans region.
The number of drug overdose deaths in New Orleans essentially held steady in 2018, remaining at the elevated level it reached in 2016 amid the…
Byerley said the other key reason was the large number of local partners willing to implement the strategy.
At a press briefing, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell mentioned that opioid overdose deaths outnumbered fatal shootings in the city for three straight years beginning in 2016, as the nationwide crisis proliferated.
The same has been true for years in Jefferson as well as in St. Bernard, whose longtime sheriff, James Pohlmann, reminded reporters Tuesday that he lost his son to a heroin overdose in New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward in 2016.
One prong of the 360 Strategy involves the DEA, FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in each region continuing to work with local law enforcement to build cases against narcotics traffickers and unscrupulous doctors, both of whom prey on addicts across socioeconomic classes.
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“We have the collective tools and resources to confront these dangerous organizations head on,” said U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser, who vowed his prosecutors would seek the highest penalties available for defendants in such cases.
The other prongs of the strategy — addiction treatment and education focused on addiction prevention — have been tried before, but fragmented efforts have had limited success.
Without delving into specifics, the officials touting the 360 Strategy promised to focus on moving people struggling with addiction from police stations, courthouses and emergency rooms to educational, employment, housing and counseling opportunities rather than jails.
To do so, they said, they will work with an alliance of nonprofits, civic organizations and faith-based communities.
The strategy also calls for providing parents, after-school programs, athletic organizations and businesses frequented by young people with information about the consequences facing those who use or sell drugs.
The website wakeup-nola.com, to which officials directed the public for more details, lists the Boys & Girls Clubs of America; Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE; and a drug awareness program run by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks as initiative partners.
There is also information about the locations of boxes where people can safely dispose of unused prescription drugs as well as details about a national “takeback” day on April 27, when people are urged to turn in such drugs.
Cantrell, Pohlmann, Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis and Jefferson Parish Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich — a former ER doctor who described frequently seeing families torn apart by loved ones’ opioid addictions — all pledged to support the 360 Strategy from their positions.
Byerley said meetings to involve other community leaders in the project and to “look for sustainable, impactful efforts to address drug abuse, addiction, trafficking and the violence that accompanies it” are in the works for later this year.
“It took a long time to get here, and it’s going to take a long time to get away from where we are,” Cvitanovich said about the state of the opioid crisis. “But I know this: There’s a lot of dedicated people, and we’re going to get after this and make a difference.”
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