When it comes to the opioid epidemic, there is so rarely good news. Iowans, like others around the country, have watched the epidemic cascade into the deadliest drug crisis in American history, taking over lives and communities without pause. Although Iowa’s opioid problem has not been as severe as in other states, opioid deaths in Iowa more than tripled between 2005 and 2017. But, after years of focus and dedication, we are starting to see the first sign of real, tangible progress.
As noted in a recent Gazette article, Iowa saw a 33 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths last year. In 2018, Iowa had 137 opioid-related deaths, down from the recent peak of 206 deaths in 2017. That brings Iowa to a 10-year low. One death is too many, but opioid deaths continue to rise in other parts of the country, making this progress all the more important.
This first success did not come without serious efforts from multiple agencies, groups, and dedicated community members. The U.S. Attorney’s Office first noted and addressed the growing opioid issue in Iowa as far back as 2005. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin overdoses increased fivefold from 2010 to 2017. In 2015, as the crisis grew exponentially and overdose deaths across the country rose, the opioid epidemic was declared an emergency.
That same year, the Cedar Rapids Police Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office partnered to create the Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative, funded by the federal Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. The initiative has a three-pronged approach: Enforcement, prevention, and treatment. That is how, as a community, we decided to protect the public, because no single approach can abate the epidemic alone.
As a part of the initiative’s enforcement efforts, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has prosecuted more than 100 defendants for felony-level opioid charges. Those prosecutions included charges for trafficking in heroin, fentanyl and related drugs. A number of the prosecutions were for drug distributions that resulted in deaths. This initiative also provided communities across Iowa with drug awareness programs, first-responder trainings, and it highlighted the need for detoxification, treatment and other services. Among those services is increased access to naloxone, also known as Narcan, used to treat opioid overdoses.
Of course, the problem has not been completely eradicated. As our office — along with the offices of our dedicated partners — focuses on decreasing opioid deaths and related crimes, we are reminded to be as vigilant as ever. Opioid deaths have not returned to precrisis levels. Despite nationwide efforts, more than 130 people from across the country are dying every day from opioid overdose. Drugs like fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and can kill its users in just minutes, threaten to replace heroin as its deadlier, synthetic cousin.
Nonetheless, this milestone should not be overlooked. We applaud everyone in the community — EMTs, health care and social service providers, nonprofits, concerned friends and family members, and law enforcement officials — for their dedication to addressing this problem, and we ask all members of the community to remain diligent. We see the flickers of hope, and we must support those working tirelessly to keep our communities healthy and safe. We are not to the end of the road, but this progress is the first sign of better things to come.
• Peter Deegan is United States Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa.