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Guest opinion

Cunningham: More clinics needed to combat opioid addiction; oversight needed

The state Department of Health Services estimates that we had nearly 8,600 cases of opiod overdose in the last year, and that 1,382 Arizonans died due to opiod abuse.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about who opiod addicts are. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration estimates that 2.1 million opiod users misused their legally prescribed drugs. This makes them 40 times more likely to become heroin users.

Keep in mind, those are among the nearly 100 million people that are on prescribed painkillers each year. That's the man down the street that has arthritis, the woman that had the car wreck, the veteran who took fire overseas and the athlete dealing with an injury. It could be almost anyone. The National Safety Council reports that one-third of those prescribed opiods didn't know that's what they were taking.

According to that same NSC report issued earlier this year, Arizona is doing some things right to confront the crisis. They count us as one of 13 states "improving" our response because of measures taken to mandate education of prescribers, implementing prescription guidelines, prescription monitoring and data collection.

The one place where the report said Arizona is falling down is with treatment. Many folks that want to get off of opiods here in Arizona cannot find programs.

Which brings me to an issue that I've gotten calls about: an opiod treatment clinic that is planned for East Broadway.

There is something I want to make clear: the location that they are putting this facility in has the zoning, which is why there were no neighborhood meetings and no City Council process. The current zoning is O3, which allows for "mid-rise, office, medical, civic and select other uses."

Still, my office is doing due diligence on this to make sure neighborhood concerns are addressed. My staff has been in touch with the agency that is going to be running the facility and among the treatments that they offer is methadone. That isn't a word that makes a lot of people comfortable, but my staff has been talking to them about what is done to ensure the safety of the broader community.

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They will be doing a number of things. One is very simple: when a client goes in for treatment, they are given a number. If they go outside, they lose their place in line for the day. This is a big incentive for patients to stay in the facility and not linger in the neighborhood, particularly those who need to go in for treatment daily.

Also, as a condition for methadone (or suboxone or one of the other treatments there are available) patients must also receive counseling or case management as part of their visit. They aren't just given methadone and leaving. As part of case management, many clients have to attend school or hold down a job to keep in the program.

Among the other measures they have taken at other locations is on-site security to keep an eye on clients to make sure they aren't staying in the neighborhood as well as contracts with clients that say they agree not to loiter in the neighborhood as a condition of treatment. At the company's facility near St. Joseph's Hospital, they found that 90 percent of the clients that were outside the facility were waiting for rides.

Although the city does not have regulatory authority for these centers, each site is licenced by our state's Department of Health Services. In addition, they are subject to inspection from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

A study done by the University of Baltimore and the FBI surveyed 15 treatment centers in Baltimore and found no increase of crime in these areas. The study included a range of neighborhoods from low- to middle-income. As part of my due diligence, I had my staff reach out to our police division to see what calls, if any, are being generated by these facilities in Tucson. That information is being compiled.

In the case of this particular facility, I have been in touch with both the company and leadership of the neighborhood association. They are willing to meet with each other and the company has told me they are willing to hear suggestions on measures to minimize the impact on the neighborhood.

As the opiod crisis continues, there will be further need for sites like the one on East Broadway. I understand the need for them but I also recognize the need to protect our neighborhoods.

Paul Cunningham represents Ward 2 on the Tucson City Council.

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