Both Haines and Skagway are establishing new efforts to combat drug abuse. Task forces in both communities are trying to come up with solutions. At an initial meeting in Haines, community members brainstormed concerns and possible answers.
The public safety commission organized the discussion after hearing from Police Chief Heath Scott about increasing numbers of opioid-related overdoses at a recent meeting.
Jenn Walsh is one of Haines’ paid firefighters. She said from her perspective on the ambulance crew, opioid use is increasing in town. She said she’s been on the team for seven years. In the first five years, she said she never administered Narcan, the drug used to treat an opioid overdose. But, that isn’t the case anymore.
“Five years, never,” said Walsh. “Never did I give this. I’ve been an EMT too, so I’ve been able to give this drug for all of that time. And it is just increasing.”
Much of the conversation about whether there is a significant increase is anecdotal. This discussion went beyond that, ranging from prevention, to a lack of local resources for addicts, to a desire to have a drug dog in town.
For some people, the most important thing is getting the conversation started. Here’s Jamie Dozier.
“What we need to do here is we need to communicate,” said Dozier. “Nobody talks about the drug addiction. Nobody.”
Larry Berzanski said he’s been an addict for many years. He said the drug problem isn’t limited to Haines.
“It’s huge, huge,” said Berzanski. “Bigger than you guys can even imagine. In fact Haines is living under a rock. United States at large is so big.”
Chief Scott said policing is not the only answer. He said there need to be other strategies for dealing with drug use.
“There is no way with the set of circumstances that we’re faced with in Alaska that we’re going to solve this from a law enforcement standpoint,” said Scott.
Alekka Fullerton said she wants to see those other solutions discussed, too.
“I’m taking my hat off as the deputy clerk and putting my mom hat on,” said Fullerton. “I don’t want to see this conversation just revolve around enforcement. I would like to see this conversation be talking more about education and prevention and what we can all do.”
Haines School Principal Rene Martin said education is a key part of this conversation.
“Education and early education is critical,” said Martin. “We feel we have a really solid program at the school and we work very hard to help students understand choices and what those choices mean long-term. The whole gamut.”
Haines SEARHC clinic administrator Pat Hefley said from their perspective, medical providers haven’t seen any major changes in the number or demographics of people coming to the clinic for issues related to drug use. But, he said that’s not surprising and doesn’t necessarily reflect what is happening in the community.
“People will come to us for many things but it is not unusual that they will not come for addiction services,” said Hefley. “Many people will not, some will. But they have not noticed an increase.”
In March, highly-addictive opioids such as fentanyl were stolen from the Haines clinic.
Hefley said he spent many years running drug treatment programs.
“The answers tend to be within the community, rather than without,” said Hefley. “And I hope that tonight is but a spark that might have a little bit of flame that might build a fire that might warm up the hearts and spirit in the community.”
The conversation generated a couple ideas.
The commission asked the school to provide a link on their website to the police department’s anonymous tip line.
They also want local police to carry Narcan, and talked about the possibility of having the drug available where defibrillators are around town.
And, they want to continue the dialogue within the community. Michael Fullerton said everyone has to be involved.
“I think we have to look to everyone to address this issue,” said Fullerton. “We can’t give anyone an excuse. No one should be allowed to not have this conversation. This has to be part of our larger community.”
The commission voted to establish a drug awareness task force. An opioid task force got its footing earlier this year in Skagway. The Skagway School, assembly, clinic and police department are working together on the effort.