Troopers discuss rural opioid and heroin addiction with AFN

Representatives of the AFN and the National Congress of American Indians met Wednesday to discuss a range of topics, including opioid and heroin addiction in rural Alaska. Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Kevin Blanchette with the western Alaska Drug Enforcement unit was among several presenters on the issue. Sergeant Blanchette said prescription pain killers and heroin have become a top priority for the unit.

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”Right now, the opioid addiction problem is just as prevalent as the alcohol use and abuse problem,” Blanchette said. “And what we’re seeing now is a lot of these are overlapping. A lot of people are prescribed these medications. They’re not only drinking an excess amounts of alcohol every day. They also take in an excess amount of pain pills. And when you fix this high level of alcohol with these opiates, you have a very real chance of death or overdose.”

Addiction to prescription pain killers often leads to heroin use. Sergeant Blanchette said an especially potent batch of heroin that caused several overdoses and a death in the village of Quinhagah this summer, resulted in a village dealer turning himself in.

”The people, let’s say in Quinhagak or in Bethel who are maybe low level dealers, what needs to happen to get the ball rolling in their treatment is sometimes an arrest or to be charged with crimes,” Blanchette said.

Blanchette said drug interdiction efforts generally focus on opioids coming into Alaska from outside and through hub communities, but he highlights the need for information from village residents to help piece together the drug trafficking puzzle. He also points to a new public outreach effort in villages to educate kids about the dangers of opioids.

“And if we can get the message to them, so they grew up to not be users and the medical field can change their practices, maybe we can stop this new generation from becoming addicted to this drug,” Blanchette said.

Dr. Joshua Sonkiss, medical director at Fairbanks Community Mental Health said opioids were increasingly prescribed in recent decades as regulations required more aggressive treatment of pain. He said over-prescribing resulted in the current addiction problem.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.