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Kirsten Kuhn: Delaying plans to expand access to opioid overdose reversal drug could cost lives (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The Douglas County Commission doesn’t seem to be as concerned about overdose deaths in our county as they ought. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, DCCCA sought $47,450 to place opioid overdose treatment resources throughout our community. They proposed several options: vending machines, targeted distribution, increased private access, and individual kits with instructional videos that would be placed strategically.

This proposal would not cost the taxpayers a dime, since we have $197,713 from an opioid settlement currently available. The requested amount for this project is less than one-quarter of these funds, which are expected to continue to grow over the coming few years. 

What other project could be more appropriate for use of those funds? Why the delay to implement such needed resources?

We’ve seen the devastation being wrought throughout the nation by opioids, especially the synthetic drug fentanyl. Harm reduction measures are desperately needed to combat this in any and all available forms. Frustratingly, the state of Kansas will not legalize fentanyl testing strips, despite the fact that many other illicit drugs can contain the substance unbeknownst to the user. 

Kansas has seen a 68.5% increase in opioid overdose deaths from 2020-2021, according to the most recent statewide data available. According to preliminary data from Lawrence police, there were 17 opioid overdose deaths in Lawrence in 2021 and 14 more in 2022, compared to 13 total during the three years prior. There were 39 opioid overdoses in Lawrence in 2021 and 43 in 2022, well above the average of 14 each year from 2018 through 2020. 

Some of these people had no idea they were at risk of this type of overdose, since they did not intend to consume an opioid. Without a way to ensure purity of the product, our community members will continue to be subject to unknown adulteration, and overdoses will happen. Douglas County is not immune to this problem. We’ve seen deaths, and we will see more.

Naloxone, and its registered brand Narcan, saves lives. It has no potential for abuse, and has no effect on an individual who has not ingested an opioid. Its mechanism of action is only to block the uptake of a narcotic drug into opiate receptors. When administered in a timely fashion, naloxone can reverse an overdose. But a bystander must already have it on hand when they encounter this emergency scenario. 

Widespread public access to naloxone, such as through vending machines, would allow our community members to be prepared if they find themselves in such a situation. DCCCA distributed 413 kits in 2021, 736 in 2022, and 520 already in 2023. They anticipate a need of almost 2,000 kits this year. There is clearly an urgent and growing need and demand.

The current Douglas County commissioners, as well as past commissioners, have no problem spending exorbitant amounts on consultants and projects with consistent community opposition without high levels of scrutiny. To date, they’ve doled out millions of dollars just to Treanor Architects and Turner Construction for jail expansion and remodel plans. How many of those plans were implemented? They’re just as happy to spend money on consultants. 

But during Wednesday’s meeting, a commissioner said in regards to DCCCA’s proposal, “The dollar amount is probably around the right dollar amount that I want to spend right now.” If the money is there, and if there are no concerns about spending this quantity of it, what is the purpose of the delay? This commission may consider a delay of a week or two to be no big deal, simply a way of doing their due diligence. But it very well could be the difference between life and death for one of our community members. 

We know that overdoses are skyrocketing. We know more people will die. While no one can ever know for sure, there is a greater chance that these lives could’ve been saved with greater access to lifesaving measures like naloxone.

In overdose emergencies, every moment counts. Any saved time can mean someone doesn’t lose their parent, child, friend, or loved one. Every one of these lives lost matters, as does every life saved. I carry Narcan, and you should, too. But it would certainly be easier to do so if the Douglas County Commission would get out of the way.

— Kirsten Kuhn (she/her) is a super awesome Libertarian porcupine residing in Palmyra Township. She believes in personal freedom and self-determination for all people and enjoys gardening and beekeeping in her spare time. She can be reached at douglascountylibertarians@gmail.com or @KSLibertarians on Twitter. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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