The opioid epidemic and the state of opiate use locally was the focus of Tuesday's Texarkana Chamber of Commerce Joint City meeting. The committee is composed of the mayor and two members of the governing council or board for Texarkana, Arkansas, and Texarkana, Texas. The purpose of the meeting is to share ideas and discuss common challenges facing both cities.
Local law enforcement and health care providers talked about what they're seeing locally when it comes to opioid use.
Lt. James Atchley with the Texarkana, Ark., Police Department told the committee that opioid abuse, both legal and illegal, might seem like a big city problem but it's affecting Texarkana.
"Between 2005 and 2010, we didn't see heroin or opioids, but it started taking off in 2010. You think it's places like Chicago but it's here in Texarkana. We have to realize it's not somewhere else. It's something we have to expect and deal with here," Atchley said.
Sgt. Scott Megason, also with TAPD, said opioid use is a big problem in Arkansas.
"Arkansas is eighth in opioid prescriptions per 100 people. These are alarming numbers," Megason said.
Keeping opioids out of the wrong hands is one way people can help slow the problem. Megason encouraged using Texarkana's three drug take-back boxes to dispose of unused medications so that they don't end up being used and abused by people they weren't prescribed for. In Texarkana, the boxes are at the Miller County Sheriff's Office, behind Bi-State Justice Building and Texarkana Emergency Center.
"That is the only way to safely dispose of medications and it helps keep these drugs out of other people's hands," Megason said.
Law enforcement officials expect to be dealing with opioids for the foreseeable future, including fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times stronger.
"It's not if fentanyl will get here but when. It's definitely a problem we'll be facing for quite some time to come," Megason said. "Methamphetamine is still the biggest problem we're battling here, but opioids are definitely on the rise."
Health care providers spoke about the dilemna they face daily between treating people for pain while also trying to prevent addiction in patients.
"We use most of those drugs in the hospital under controlled circumstances very well. The problem is when they get out in the community," said Dr. Robert Bowers, an emergency room physician at Wadley Regional Medical Center.
Bowers said statistics about opioid use are all over the map and it's hard to pin down an accurate number, but it's certain there's been an exponential rise in the last 20 years.
Bowers said in the past pain may have been undertreated.
"The government made us start rating pain. They called it the fifth vital sign. It became a focus. Before, we were undertreating pain. Now, I think we're overtreating it," Bowers said.
There have been changes in the number of pain pills an ER physician can prescribe patients. The unintended consequence of limiting the number of pain pill prescriptions could mean an increase in a dangerous street drug.
"These things are getting harder and harder to get. That means the (street) price will get more expensive so we'll see more heroin," Bowers said.
Dr. Kyle Groom with Texarkana Emergency Center also spoke to the committee.
"As physicians we've got to make changes in the way we do things to make it better. We can use more Tylenol and ibuprofen. At the same time you have to look at the patient and make that judgment call. We basically do this on a daily basis 40 times," Groom said.
The Chamber's next Joint City meeting is scheduled for May 8.
Topics of these meetings have included water resources, the Texarkana Regional Airport and community broadband.