FAIRBANKS — The mood was somber Wednesday morning as community leaders, law enforcement agencies, doctors and drug treatment providers met at Wedgewood Resort to discuss the impact of the growing opioid epidemic in America.
The two-day Fairbanks Opioid Summit was hosted by the Fairbanks Native Association and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a way to highlight the problem and find ways to work together to fight it.
Opening speaker Mayor Jim Matherly said drug addiction could happen to anyone and was not dependent on race, age, education or social class. Matherly showed photos of his family as he spoke with emotion about his mother’s prescription drug and alcohol use and his daughter’s struggles with addiction. He encouraged people to snoop into their kids lives, noting his daughter started cutting herself at age 13 and he had no idea at the time.
An epidemic of powerful drugs
Ricardo Quintero, the diversion program manager for the DEA, spoke about the nationwide impact of opioid abuse, noting that 33,000 people died of opioid overdose in the U.S. last year.
“We’re here because we have a problem, we’re here to share our knowledge with one another so we can help end this crisis. But we need to keep together. This group right here, we can’t just sit here and at the end of the day say, ‘That was great, let’s just go,’” Quintero said. “We all have to work together to stop this crisis.”
Quintero said fentanyl, which was created in the mid-1990s to treat severe pain such as that encountered by cancer patients, has surpassed the more commonly misused opioids like hydrocodone, morphine and Oxycontin in popularity.
“Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. It’s so powerful it’s prescribed in micrograms, not milligrams,” Quintero said. “It will kill you. This is no joke, folks. This is happening right now as we speak.”
Fentanyl is so powerful that officers are careful not to get it on their clothing or touch it because it can enter the bloodstream through the skin and cause them to overdose.
Quintero gave a quick overview of new drugs that are flooding the market and causing deaths nationwide, such as U-47700, a synthetic opioid that looks like a white or pink powder and is believed to be manufactured in China, and Gray Death, which looks like concrete mix and is believed to be a combination of heroin, fentanyl and other opioids.
Laying waste to village life
Sgt. Jody Potts, director of the Village Public Safety Officer program for Tanana Chiefs Conference, said she grew up in a village and saw a lot of alcohol abuse and fights breaking out because of alcohol but “Now, with the combination of substances, we see a higher level of violence and more unpredictability.”
Potts said the impact of heroin and meth has been devastating in villages, which often have a population of only a few hundred people. Children are being abused or neglected, and “A lot of grandparents raising the kids because mom and dad are addicts, they go to Fairbanks so they can get access to drugs.
“What is it going to do long-term? We have children growing up without parents. One region has a tramadol problem. They’re like zombies, the kids aren’t getting fed and are running around all night,” Potts said.
Tramadol is used to treat pain and can cause death when taken in high doses or with alcohol.
Potts said distance and geography increase the challenge of dealing with the problem in a region that includes 42 villages but is policed by only a few VPSOs and two trooper detachments. Potts said she meets with tribes and works on ways to prevent the importation of drugs and alcohol, but she needs specifics to get warrants to search possible smugglers.
A big job for a small staff
Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit member Sgt. Aaron Mobley said his team of eight officers is responsible for covering drug activity in the northern half of Alaska and is badly in need of more personnel.
“We’ve been fighting this epidemic hard for about 21/2 to three years now. It’s coming on strong and it keeps on going. We throw everything we can at in on a daily basis,” Mobley said. “Our goal is to stop the influx of heroin, opiates and meth.”
Mobley said his team’s main focus is to combat drug dealing in Fairbanks before it gets to villages.
“We can’t work every case, If we did, we’d never sleep or go home. We have to be more resourceful, but we’re getting there,” Mobley said.
Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.