The national opioid crisis has hit Oregon as hard as it has any U.S. state. The state ranked first in nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers in 2010 and 2011. Deaths from opioids in the state peaked in 2012, when 292 Oregonians died from overdose.
The state’s opioid crisis has caused drug misuse to spread to rural areas that had not seen mass substance use before. It has strained those communities’ resources.
Oregonians use prescription opioids less than they did a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean the crisis has abated. Evidence suggests that opioid users have switched to heroin instead. According to the Oregon Health Authority, as opioid use rates have gone down, heroin use has increased.
Oregon’s opioid crisis has its origins in the late 1990s and 2000s. Pharmaceutical companies made aggressive efforts to market prescription opioids to patients and encouraged doctors to prescribe opioids in large quantities.
Oregon is no different from the rest of the United States. Its doctors prescribe massive amounts of opioids. At least 908,000 Oregonians received at least one prescription for an opioid in 2012. Between the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2017, Oregon’s doctors issued an average of 968,165 opioid prescriptions every three months, and 22,267,797 prescriptions in total.
Opioid use has been growing in rural Oregon. Southwest Oregon towns like Medford, Ashland, and Grants Pass have struggled in the crisis. Mass opioid use has strained health care and first response resources in these communities.
Dr. Kristin Miller, chief medical officer at Siskiyou Community Health, told Jefferson Public Radio that 1,200 opioid prescriptions are filled for every 1,000 people each year in southern Oregon. Southwest Oregon hospitals see overdose patients nearly as often as hospitals in Portland. Rural Coos County actually has a higher overdose hospitalization rate than Multnomah County.
Southwest Oregon doesn’t have many of the facilities needed to fight the opioid crisis. But caring community members are starting to change that.
Before the nonprofit organization Grace Roots founded its rehab center in Josephine County in 2017, people had to travel to Medford, in adjacent Jackson County, to seek treatment. The 501(c)3 organization had expected to admit at least 100 people during its first two weeks. Many of those patients enrolled before the facility actually opened.
Ashland resident Julia Pinsky lost her son, Max, to an opioid overdose. She organized a nonprofit, Max’s Mission, that distributes naloxone, a medication that reverses opioid overdoses, to area residents.
Medford’s Kaylyn Myers misused prescription opioids as a young woman. She eventually recovered, married in her 20s, and became a mother.
However, she developed knee and back problems in her 30s. Myers quickly relapsed after a doctor prescribed her opioids. She would take 40 to 50 pills each day, “like they were Tic-Tacs.”
By 2012, the state had taken custody of her children as her addiction peaked. She was at a doctor’s office, trying to get more pain pills, when child welfare came to her house and took her children. Myers’ husband had become addicted to meth, and they lost their home.
Myers said that’s when she made the switch to heroin.
“I was so depressed, so empty without my kids,” Myers told OregonLive. “That’s when I turned to heroin. It was cheaper than pills and a better high.”
Myers sought treatment for her addiction and has been sober since 2014. She has regained custody of her children.
“First, I was staying clean so I wouldn’t go to prison. Then I was staying clean so I wouldn’t lose my kids,” Myers said. “Then, I started realizing I’m doing this for myself. I’m 33 years old. I’m going to die.”
Myers’ story is unique in the details, but not in the cause. Some prescription opioid users begin using heroin when they can’t get pills.
People struggling with addiction who are unable to access treatment when they are cut off from their prescriptions will often seek out heroin. According to the CDC, three out of four heroin users had previously misused prescription opioids.