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Who’s tracking opioids in the Treasure Valley?

Syringes of the opioid painkiller fentanyl lay on a counter Friday, June 1, 2018, in an inpatient pharmacy. (Rick Bowmer / AP)
Syringes of the opioid painkiller fentanyl lay on a counter Friday, June 1, 2018, in an inpatient pharmacy. (Rick Bowmer / AP)

Boise police started tracking opioid-related arrests in November 2016, after a case Officer Terry Weir remembers well.

He and others investigated the theft of an iPad, stolen out of a vehicle in Boise’s North End. The investigation led them to a house in the southern part of the county. When they searched it, they found a home strewn with needles and syringes used for shooting heroin. There were about 10,000 of them in total, Weir estimated.

“The conditions of this house were…the worst I’ve ever seen,” he remembered. “That was our first big indication (of an opioid problem in Boise).”

After that, Weir and others at the Boise Police Department made efforts to record opioid-related arrests and deaths. They soon realized the project would have to involve other agencies, such as the Ada County Coroner’s Office, to offer an accurate picture of the problem.

Despite two meetings of the Treasure Valley Partnership this summer during which leaders from Ada, Canyon and Owyhee counties discussed the growing problem, the Boise Police Department remains an apparent anomaly in the area by maintaining a meticulous record of each arrest and death related to opioids. Other agencies, such as the Ada County Sheriff’s Office and the Meridian Police Department, can find the information in their databases, but it is not stored in a separate file.

The lack of available data has come up in Canyon County, particularly as it relates to potential legal action against pharmaceutical companies. Canyon County Clerk Chris Yamamoto previously cast doubt on Canyon County’s ability to gather data to serve as evidence of damages specifically caused by opioids.

“The data is not really there, and different entities do different ways of record keeping,” Yamamoto said during a meeting with county commissioners in May. “The research I’ve done so far, I don’t know how we’re going to come up with any decent data.”

Still, those other police and city departments have voiced support for a group effort to reduce opioid-related deaths, and Weir said he was glad to see that support at the Treasure Valley Partnership’s meetings in June and July. But as leaders discuss the increased scope of Southwest Idaho’s opioid problem, Boise’s numbers remain the most comprehensive.

The upward trajectory of the data is steep. In 2013 and 2014, opioid-related deaths in Boise numbered in the single digits. In 2015, though, opioids killed 26 people in the city, and 61 in Ada County as a whole. In 2016, Ada County totals jumped to 102, and in 2017 an estimated 110 people died as a result of opioids.

Boise’s opioid-related arrests more than doubled between 2015 and 2016, increasing from 57 to 128. In the first 10 months of 2017, Boise police arrested 143 people in opioid-related incidents.

Getting the numbers was more a matter of data analysis than anything else, Weir said. The biggest hurdle was finding a way to sift through the information officers brought back from the street. For example, police can type the word “methamphetamine” into the Boise Police Department’s database and find a great deal of information about cases and arrests in which that drug played a role. But opioids go by many names — everything from heroin to brand name pharmaceuticals — so department employees had to find a way to control for that. Once they did, they pulled the data out of police reports and made spreadsheets for an easier analysis of the issue.

They also had to work with the Ada County Coroner’s Office, since police don’t always know when an overdose patient actually dies. Even those numbers can be misleading — a patient might overdose in Nampa or Caldwell, but might be taken to an Ada hospital or identified by Ada’s coroner.

Documenting opioid abuse’s effect on the Canyon County indigent fund and the costs associated with involuntary holds would likely be the best source of data, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Sam Laugheed said.

Canyon County spokesman Joe Decker said the problem lies with how the county currently tracks substance abuse. The sheriff’s office, county coroner and the prosecutor’s office don’t distinguish cases by the type of controlled substance. Staff in all three departments would have to review every case file and arrest report involving controlled substances in order to determine the amounts of deaths or arrests related to opioids, and not substances like methamphetamine. The county is currently understaffed, Decker said, and doesn’t have the time to devote to that level of investigation.

Hence the need for a valleywide conversation at the Treasure Valley Partnership’s meetings. Police, health care professionals and elected officials all want to know what’s really happening.

That’s why it’s also important to remember numbers aren’t everything, Weir said. The data is necessary, but it paints only a two-dimensional picture of opioid use in the area. He’s learned a great deal of information from talking with users and dealers as well, such as the fact that most heroin comes to Boise from Portland, Salt Lake City and Washington, or that opioid addiction drives other crime — such as the North End iPad theft — as users steal for drug money. And he also confirmed many users in the Treasure Valley started with an addiction to prescription pills before they tried heroin.

That’s true of most heroin users nationwide, and for that reason many city and county governments across America have joined lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies they say pushed addictive drugs on patients to an irresponsible degree. Plaintiffs in those lawsuits claim the corporations created the opioid crisis in America, which killed between 56,000 and 65,000 people in 2016 alone.

Yet despite Boise’s efforts to combat the problem, Boise City Manager Mike Journee said city officials have made no serious effort to join a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies.

In Canyon County, two separate groups previously approached officials about joining lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies that could help Canyon County recoup losses related to opioid addiction. More than 225 municipalities in 19 states — including other Idaho counties — have joined a federal lawsuit targeting prominent opioid creators such as Purdue Pharma. The consolidated cases will play out in district court in Cleveland, Ohio.

Although Canyon County commissioners voted to pursue negotiations with the one of the groups, Canyon County has yet to sign a contract joining the firms in the lawsuit. Commissioners plan to address the pending decision in coming weeks, according to Commissioner Tom Dale.

Kate McGwire, spokeswoman for Ada County, said the county has no immediate plans to join a lawsuit either.

Still, understanding the scope of the problem is an important step for leaders to take.

“(The Treasure Valley Partnership meeting) was us getting arms around ‘how big is the problem?’” Journee said. “We’re trying to put a foot forward in tackling this as a region rather than as separated departments.”


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