Groups work to combat drug overdose epidemic in East Tennessee

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Drug overdoses continue to rise across East Tennessee. First responders have to use the overdose reversal drug Naloxone more and more often.

The Knoxville Fire Department had to use Naloxone six times in January 2016. Compare that to this month, they’ve saved the lives of 26 people who have overdosed. The Knoxville Police Department says they’ve responded to 86 overdose calls this month alone. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office has already had 42 overdose reports this month. Tennessee Highway Patrol says drugged driving now causes more traffic deaths than drunk driving.

Andrew Watson knows all too well the struggle of addiction. It started in college. He was playing soccer with friends and was injured. He says he was prescribed powerful pain pills. He became addicted and began buying drugs off the street.

“At the end of my using, I had about a $400 a day pill habit,” said Watson.

Losing a friend was a wake-up call for Watson.

Previous story: Knoxville police see increase in overdose calls

“A close friend of mine overdosed and at his funeral I had to watch his 11-year-old son cry over his casket. And that to me is an eye opener,” said Watson.

Karen Pershing with the Metro Drug Coalition says as laws crack down on over prescribing and pill mills, people are turning to the streets to get their drugs.

“This heroin is much more potent than the heroin we saw in the 1970s, so it’s much stronger,” said Pershing.

Fake pills are also being sold on the street causing deaths in East Tennessee.

“You think you could be getting a 40 mg oxycodone on the street when in actuality it’s this clandestine fentanyl that’s so powerful as soon as you take it, you’re going to stop breathing,” said Pershing.

Rep. Bill Dunn explained what is being done to combat the overdose problem. He says the crackdown on pill mills will eventually save lives.

“As time goes on with fewer and fewer people starting the addiction process there will be fewer and fewer people to turn to heroin and other drugs that are often times fatal,” said Representative Dunn.

Pershing says a new law makes addiction treatment facilities meet tougher standards and more federal money is coming in the next few months to expand treatment facilities.

Watson, who went through treatment and has been clean for over three years, says it’s important to increase education. He now does that at Metro Drug Coalition.

“I think it’s really important that we begin to open this discussion with the community about what recovery is, what treatment is,” said Watson.

The Metro Drug Coalition also focuses on education for prevention. They want people to understand the dangers of drug use before even starting.

They go area schools and talk to students. They are also working on mapping out the areas where more overdoses occur and will focus efforts in those communities. Naloxone is available to family and friends of people at risk of overdose in hopes of being able to save even more lives.

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