Snohomish County has received some attention for the methods it’s using to combat the opioid epidemic and those strategies were discussed at a recent Sno-Isle Libraries event.
The library district brought multiple officials from around the county to their service center in Tulalip on Nov. 8 to talk with the community.
Kyle Norris and Anna Boiko-Weyrauch produce and host the podcast “Finding Fixes,” the first season of which looks at how Snohomish County agencies and communities are responding to the problem of opioid addiction.
Country officials are coming at the problem with more of a focus on social workers and support, with drugs like Suboxone and Narcan that help keep those with addiction alive and with less of a focus on arresting as a first response.
The county received national attention as NPR ran a story from “Finding Fixes” this October.
“The sheriff and I both received multiple emails and phone calls from across the country — Missouri, Massachusetts, Iowa, — asking us what is that secret sauce and how are we doing it,” said Shari Ireton, director of communications Snohomish County sheriff’s office.
Norris and Boiko-Weyrauch, who both work at KUOW Seattle but produce “Finding Fixes” as a separate venture, decided to highlight Snohomish County after learning about the efforts here.
“A lot of times when we think of the opioid epidemic people think Ohio and West Virginia, but in the national news this isn’t really the setting from which the opioid epidemic is told, but I thought what you are doing here in Snohomish County is interesting,” said Boiko-Weyrauch.
County Sheriff Ty Trenary said when he first started working as Police Chief of Stanwood he was surprised at the extent of addiction in the county.
“Heroin is not just an inner-city problem. That’s what I believed growing up,” he said.
“I couldn’t comprehend it because it was Stanwood. It was a really slow town, but I learned a lot of lessons because I realized we have to get out in front of this,” he said.
Trenary said that traditional policing is ineffective at changing the behavior of those with addiction problems.
“Why has it taken us so long to figure out that a pair-of-handcuffs and a trip to jail doesn’t solve this issue,” he said.
That became more obvious when his team looked at the county data.
Over a five-year period county officers had 53 people that they had arrested more than 30 times. Of those, Trenary said that about 85 percent were people dealing with addiction.
One of the ways the county has changed their approach is creating units of social workers and police officers that go out into homeless camps.
“To step into this role and going into a camp and earning the trust of a homeless addict or mentally ill person was a complete role reversal for me,” said Snohomish County Deputy Bud McCurry.
Despite changing tactics, McCurry said that it has been both effective and personally rewarding.
“We’ve got hundreds people out of tents,” he said. “On a humanitarian level I know that we’re saving lives out there.”
Trenary said that the strategy has been criticized as being soft on crime, but said that if the public wants to help change the behavior of those with addiction, a new approach is necessary.
“This is our job, it’s our responsibility is to make the community safe and create long-term solutions,” he said.
Drugs like Narcan and Sudoxone are helping keep those with addiction alive as well.
Narcan is a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
“I’ve read so many of our own incident reports about someone not conscious, barely breathing and they’ll go within 30 seconds to a person that is up and ready to fight,” said Ireton.
Suboxone is an opioid that is used for pain management and also used to help those with addiction curb withdrawal symptoms, although is controversial as some claim that it is just replacing one opioid for another.
The Snohomish County jail became one of the first in the state to offer Sudoxone to help detoxing inmates last year.
Boiko-Weyrauch said that Sudoxone has been shown to help cut overdose deaths by half, and those who use it to get clean are 30 percent less likely to relapse.
“There’s a lot of evidence to back up the use of these medications,” she said.
However, as the opioid epidemic hit America, doctors became more reluctant to prescribe drugs that are potentially addicting.
Heather Thomas, public and government affairs Snohomish Health District, said that is beginning to change for Sudoxone.
“We have some big provider groups that have made commitments. We’re starting to see big groups step up,” she said, including groups like Community Health Center of Snohomish County and Molina Healthcare.
“Although there is still a stigma, even within the medical groups, about whether this is just a substitution [for heroin],” Thomas said.
Boiko-Weyrauch said that she hopes solutions continue to be developed that treat opioid addiction less as a problem of people, but more as a medical, environmental and social problem.
“The way we’ve understood addiction, or often still understand addiction, is wrong. We’ve thought of it as a moral failure when really it’s a medical condition. We focus on the drugs when really we need to focus on what is driving people to the drugs in the first place,” she said.