Newspapers big and small tackle Kentucky’s opioid epidemic

The opioid epidemic, and the growing concern about stronger and more lethal painkillers, is getting plenty of coverage by major news outlets in Kentucky, one of the states most troubled by it. But smaller news outlets are also tackling the issue.

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The Courier-Journal‘s latest effort, by Beth Warren and Matthew Glowicki, explored the spread of fentanyl, which they write “is blamed for causing or contributing to nearly 43 percent of [Jefferson] County’s 325 fatal drug overdoses last year — and taking more lives than
homicides.” The pressed-pill form resembles oxycodone and other weaker painkillers, but “A dose as small as two milligrams — about the size of Abraham Lincoln’s cheek on a penny — can be lethal. . . . It’s cheaper than heroin and delivers a more powerful high, appealing to manufacturers and traffickers. It’s often made in China and shipped
to Canada or Mexico and then hauled into the United States, but it also has been sent directly from China.”

Van Ingram, director of the the state Office of Drug Control Policy, told the Louisville newspaper that he expects fentanyl to be the biggest factor in fatal overdoses in 2016, once the data are compiled. “Last year, fentanyl surpassed the
known number of heroin-related deaths in Kentucky — with 28 percent of
all fatal overdoses linked to heroin, compared to 34 percent to
fentanyl,” the reporters write. The latest threat is from carfentanil, “an elephant tranquilizer up to 100 times more potent than fentanyl.”

Two weeks earlier, The C-J published a story by Warren about how overdose sites have become crime scenes, leading to prosecutions against drug dealers. The story began with an online exchange between an accused dealer and a victim, in which they discussed the possibility of a fatal overdose. The exchange, captured from her cell phone, provided not only a compelling start to the story but a compelling illustration that dominated the newspaper’s front page: an example of translating digital media into print media.

The stories of addiction can be told from the viewpoints of police and of survivors of overdose victims, but also from the view of those who have survived addiction and are in recovery. The weekly Adair County Community Voice is doing that with a series titled “Journey to Recovery,” the latest installment of which tells the story of Misty May, a mother whose would-be nursing career was destroyed when she became addicted to crack cocaine after just one dose.

“We’ve all heard the phrase ‘all it takes is one time’ when it comes to drug addiction, but you never truly understand this phrase until you have been through it yourself,” Adam Capps begins his story about May, who has been sober for 11 years with the help of drug court, which requires treatment. It was accompanied by a sidebar about Kentucky’s high rate of overdoses, a phone number to get help, and a note from the newspaper saying in part that “There must be open conversation in developing new tactics and ideas to combat drug dependency issues in our community. Locking the issues behind bars is not addressing or helping to fix our problems.” In an editorial the next week, Capps wrote, “I’ve had to rearrange the way I think about drug addicts, and I hope the stigmas associated with addicts can become a thing of the past.”

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