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Arizona’s opioid epidemic: Here’s what ‘Bruce & Pamela’ learned

Two Arizonans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Gov. Doug Ducey issued an emergency declaration in 2017 to begin combating the crisis.

So where does progress on the opioid epidemic stand now?

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Bruce St. James & Pamela Hughes Show dove into the topic this week, interviewing people who represent all sides of the issue.

Here is what the show learned throughout the week:

Day 1: Mom and son who have personal experience with addiction open treatment center

On Monday, Bruce and Pamela spoke with Robin Byrne and Gabriel Tomaeno, a mother and son team who opened a Scottsdale treatment center together.

Byrne, who has worked as an addiction therapist for 35 years, watched all three of her children suffer from addiction.

“Being a therapist but also having a child with addiction, it didn’t make that much of a difference,” she said. “I was still a mom who was dealing with a child with a serious illness and the emotional devastation was great.”

Tomaeno said he began using opioids when he was 13 and relapsed nine times in one year before treatment finally stuck.

His struggles helped foster his relationship with his mom — and a plan.

The duo opened Purpose Healing Center in Scottsdale last year with Byrne as the clinical director, alongside Tomaeno, the chief executive officer.

Day 2: Arizona attorney explains how states fight opioid epidemic with legal action

Bruce and Pamela spoke with Matthew du Mee of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday to learn more about how the state is fighting opioids with legal action.

Du Mee said drug manufacturers committed consumer fraud by marketing addictive drugs as safe and better than other drugs for treating certain conditions.

“I don’t think anyone can put their finger on the tipping point, but I think what we’ve seen is that gradually over time, it was a … misinformation campaign to slowly change the perception of opioids,” he said.

Lawsuits against the companies aim to hold them accountable and have contributed to one declaring bankruptcy, he said.

Du Mee said that although states are coming together and launching investigations, there is more to be done.

The attorney general’s office has given out $400,000 in grants to combat youth opioid use, helped train professionals to use overdose reversal drug Narcan and prosecuted doctors and pharmacists in opioid-related cases.

Day 3: Arizona lobbyist explains efforts to regulate doctors in opioid epidemic

On Wednesday, Bruce and Pamela spokes with Pete Wertheim, the executive director of the Arizona Osteopathic Medical Association.

He’s effectively worked as a lobbyist to regulate the role physicians play in the opioid epidemic.

Wertheim helped introduce legislation that put limits on opioid prescriptions and developed good Samaritan laws to help those currently suffering from addiction.

He said that because of this, opioid prescriptions in the state are down by 21%.

Wertheim said that one of the most prominent ways Arizona has begun to change the course of the opioid epidemic is by changing the stigma.

“We’ve really changed the narrative around addiction,” he said. “These people are not the evil outliers out there. Compassion is really what we’re seeing and this is really what we need to end this epidemic.”

Day 4: Arizona doctor, patient explain why access to opioids is necessary

For some people, access to opioids is necessary to maintaining a good quality of life, according to two people Bruce and Pamela spoke with Thursday.

Pain management specialist Dr. Tony Bui and chronic pain patient Lori Cutter said increasing restrictions on prescriptions have some worried they won’t be able to get theirs filled.

“For the chronic pain patients, it’s been very difficult for them because … they feel pretty marginalized from the restrictive action that the state has taken,” Bui said.

“We’re talking about people who are not … (experiencing) addiction, but more like dependent on these medications, only because they have pain.”

Cutter said she feels the stigma of being labeled as an addict every time she reaches for her pill bottle.

“I’m hearing these words, ‘abuser,’ ‘addict,’ because that’s what the media and everything is blowing up right now,” she said.

“I think we need to be celebrated that we are managing life as best we can.”


Day 5, Part 1: AZDHS official discusses state’s progress

On Friday, Bruce and Pamela first spoke to Jessica Rigler, assistant director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

She said that each month, the state sees 250 overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal.

While Arizona has made progress in reducing opioid prescriptions and dosages through regulation, she expects to see the problem continue for some time.

“Of course we’d like to see nobody overdoing or dying due to opioids. It’s going to take a long time to reach that finish line,” she said.

Day 5, Part 2: Former local news anchor details his road to recovery

Next, former 3TV anchor Brandon Lee joined the show to discuss his road to recovery.

Although he was never addicted to opioids, Lee began doing cocaine at age 15 and before getting sober was addicted to GHB, also known as the date rape drug.

Through therapy, he came to realize his addiction to both drugs and sex was related to the sexual abuse he experienced as a child.

Lee resigned as an anchor last year and wrote a memoir “Mascara Boy” that he said he hopes inspires others to speak up and get help.

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