LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KATV) — Although we’re starting to turn a corner in the coronavirus pandemic, the drug epidemic is claiming an increasing number of lives right here in Arkansas.
In the state and around the country, experts are seeing a dramatic increase in overdose death numbers since last March when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Gina Allgaier is the founder of 'Speakup About Drugs,' or SAD, an Arkansas non-profit dedicated to reversing and eliminating the drastic increase in addiction and overdose rates in our country.
“What we see a lot is individuals self-medicating if they're dealing with, of course, a lot of anxiety or depression, some sort of mental health issue, we do see that,” Allgaier said.
It’s an issue she’s all too familiar with. Allgaier lost her son, Tristan, to an overdose involving deadly fentanyl in 2017.
“It’s indescribable, the pain of losing a child,” Allgaier said. “He was a clean cut, smart, athletic kid who grew up in the church, and on the ball field, he didn't look like, you know, what people normally think of when they think of addiction.”
Allgaier said that’s the case for a lot of people who become addicted to drugs, making it difficult for parents to realize right away. Allgaier and her family struggled at every turn looking for resources to help her son overcome his addiction.
“I think as a parent going through this, I just honestly didn't know anything about addiction. I didn't know where to turn, you know, for help for him,” Allgaier said.
Due to the poisonous nature of Fentanyl, Allgaier said her son never stood a chance at recovery, but she wished they had more resources at the time.
“I think sometimes he just was able to talk his way out of some trouble that he probably should have gotten into, and just wasn't held accountable,” she said. “I just think people didn't really know how to address it, and so unfortunately, you know, the, the addiction just spiraled, and that's where it ended up.”
She took her pain and turned into a passion to help others avoid going through it and founded SAD. Through Speak Up, they educate, advocate, support and work to prevent overdose and drug use. Her ultimate goal and mission is to get to zero overdoses.
“These overdoses are happening all around the country, it's happening everywhere,” Allgaier said.
Before coronavirus, prescription opioid use declined by 60% from 2012 to 2020—but provisional data from the CDC shows more than 86,000 people died from overdoses just from August 2019 to July 2020. That’s an increase of 24.2% from the previous 12-month period.
“Every day, we're having about 230 plus deaths a day in the country, to overdose, and in the vast majority, 75% or so of those are young people,” Allgaier said. “I’m afraid we're going to be, you know, nearing that 100,000 mark.”
Allgaier said for 2019, Arkansas was one of only five states that actually reduced the number of overdoses around the country. However, Arkansas accounted for 461 of the overdose deaths included in the CDC’s data. The highest level of recorded overdose deaths in any single year.
According to the Central Arkansas Drug Task Force, White County alone reported 20 overdoses from July 2020 to January 2021.
“There's that phrase 'one pill can kill' you know, that's a true phrase, that's a true saying so we just encourage people to abstain,” Allgaier said.
State drug director Kirk Lane is also highly concerned over the growing number of deaths. In a statement, he said:
“Arkansas has seen a significant increase in overdoses and overdose deaths during these COVID months. Our infrastructure of naloxone and treatment and recovery resources are strained. It will take all of us working together to make the difference in the epidemic during the pandemic and beyond.”
Speakup About Drugs aims to support victims of the drug epidemic by offering a hotline to connect people to treatment and recovery services, educational classes and activities to improve wellness and advocacy efforts.
Allgaier is encouraging parents and guardians to start having conversations with their children about the dangers of drugs at a younger age.
“It doesn't matter how much we (parents) love them, how much we help them or how much tough love we give, you know, there's only so much that we can do,” Allgaier said.
Allgaier said for those struggling with addiction, one of the best things for them is finding a peer who has been through it, overcame it and is now living in recovery. She said Arkansas has a thriving peer support group led by Jimmy McGill out of Little Rock DHS, with the support of the drug director’s office.
“We have peers now across the state who you know, can be contacted and who can you know, engage with your loved one and help be that voice of reason for them,” Allgaier said.
She said the drug director's office also has strong “Naloxone Narcan Project.”
“I think they've had about 900 saves in the last two-and-a half-three-years since that program started,” Allgaier said.
For those who cannot abstain from drug use, Allgaier recommends the Matt Adams Foundation in Fayetteville. She said you can also get fentanyl test strips from the Arkansas Harm Reduction organization in Little Rock.
“Everyone should carry Naloxone or Narcan on them, and you can get it from a pharmacy without a prescription,” Allgaier said. “Everyone should carry it you know, you just never know when you're going to be faced with an unexpected, you know, crisis where someone is overdosing.”
Allgaier especially wanted to sound the alarm that illegal fentanyl is pouring into the country, and it’s on the streets in Arkansas, sometimes even laced in street drugs.
“Addiction and overdose is hard enough,” she said. “Especially, you know, when it's something like fentanyl, that’s basically poisoning.”
Allgaier stressed that marijuana today isn’t the same as it was 20-30 years ago. She said the THC levels, or psychoactive element of marijuana, were only in the 7% range then.
“Today, marijuana is being grown with an average of I believe, 21 to 24% levels of THC, and then the way kids are ingesting it, whether it's through vaping it or dabbing it, then they're getting like 80% levels of THC into the brain,” she said.
Allgaier said addiction comes fast, and it quickly turns deadly, especially when it involves fentanyl.
“There’s never even a chance then, you know, for recovery to occur, so, it's tough,” Allgaier said.
For more information about their programs go to https://www.speakupaboutdrugs.org. If you or a loved one is needing treatment or recovery services for substance use disorder call or text SAD directly at 1-866-571-1266 or 479-717-7480.