In Olympia, a bill that would expand access to naloxone, a
narcotic drug that can reverse the deadly effects of a heroin overdose, is slated for a hearing later this week with the state’s House Committee on Health Care & Wellness. The drug was a big part of the conversation Tuesday at a summit from the Department of Justice and the University of Washington on the state’s heroin overdose epidemic.
The daylong overdose education summit brought together hundreds of people from across the state from a range of disciplines, including law enforcement officials, clinicians, public officials, and researchers.
It’s hard to pin down just how many heroin overdoses happen on Capitol Hill. In King County, opiate related deaths went up 21% from 2011-2013.
But one case in particular was at the center of Tuesday’s summit.
Garfield High softball pitcher Marah Williams was nicknamed “The Rocket” when she played for the team in 2009. Her wicked fastball landed her on elite teams and won her trophies.
Her mother, longtime KIRO TV reporter Penny LeGate, was in awe of her athletic ability and intelligence. She also worried: Marah dealt with severe depression and even as a little girl, LeGate said she saw a sadness in her daughter’s eyes.
By 13, Marah started drinking alcohol. Although she was being raised in a loving home with ample resources, Marah was a troubled kid. She started snorting pills to self-medicate. When she needed a cheaper fix, she turned to heroin. After a family intervention, Marah decided for herself she needed help. She got clean, graduated high school on time, and started work at a Tully’s coffee shop.
In 2012, Williams was 19 years old when she died of a heroin overdose in her mother’s home. LeGate said she didn’t even know her daughter had relapsed into using.
Wearing her late daughter’s jean jacket, LeGate spoke before a packed University of Washington ballroom on Tuesday. “We talked about the Russian Roulette she played every time she picked up a needle,” LeGate said. “Some people live, some people lose.”
The consensus among many was that opiate overdoses among teens and young adults have reached emergency levels in Washington state. Caleb Banta-Green, a researcher with the UW’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute, said that in the last decade the number of people seeking opiate treatment in the state has doubled and was mostly fueled by people 18 to 29. Many had stories similar to Marah.
Unlike many other types of overdoses, opiate overdoses have a surprisingly reliable cure. The opioid antidote known as naloxone was a big topic of conversation during the summit. LeGate talked about getting the nasal spray more widely available and police chiefs discussed their successes distributing it to officers.
Having users administer naloxone to each other, and ask for it when they need it, is key to saving even more lives, Banta-Green said. In 2010, Washington state passed a law that gives immunity on drug possession charges if someone is in need in medical care or to someone seeking medical assistance for another person. The law has helped increase the number of people seeking treatment, but Banta-Green said nalaxone still needed to be made more widely available.
According to Banta-Green, much of the recent spike in heroin overdoses can be traced to the prevalence of highly addictive pharmaceutical painkillers, like Oxycotin. The story is fairly well-known today: people start using painkillers via prescription or for recreation, become addicted, and eventually turn to heroin as a cheaper and more readily available alternative.
“It’s really just about people trying to meet the opioid needs in their body,” Banta-Green said.
The keynote address was given by Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who spoke about the 45% spike in nationwide heroin overdose deaths from 2006-2010. Today, around 100 people die in the U.S. each day from opioid overdose, the overwhelming majority from prescription medications.
When LeGate spoke about her daughter, she showed pictures of Marah smiling and laughing on trips abroad only months before she died. LeGate said more people need to understand that overdoses affect people of all walks of life.
“I want to put a personal face on a lot of statistics,” she said. “There shouldn’t be this stigma.”