Oregon Senator Wyden Encourages Action As Opioid Deaths Are on the Rise

“As a Portlander, I’m not satisfied. I think it’s been too long without any real solutions and certainly very substantial funds have been made available — federal funds, state funds — and I think it’s important to put them to better use.”

This is what Oregon Senator Ron Wyden had to say when referring to the rising death toll with the synthetic opioid epidemic. He urges that more be done to curb both the crisis itself and the amount of deaths that have come about in the past few years, with a focus on Interstate 84 and Interstate 5. How much death, you may ask? According to a 2023 report from the Multnomah County Health Department, from 2018 to 2022, Multnomah County alone saw a 533% increase in overdose deaths from synthetic opioids. 533%.

Not to mention, the health department has come to claim that these deaths are affecting specifically BIPOC at a startlingly disproportionate rate. Members of the American Indian and Alaska Native communities are hit the hardest. They suffered an estimate of 43 deaths per 100,000 people in 2020, where deaths were at its peak. To put this in perspective, this is nearly triple the statewide rate for non-Hispanic people.

How does this sort of thing happen? Well, according to the Health Department’s report, it’s due to a “rapid and radical change in local drug supplies towards fentanyl and other potent synthetic opioids which began in 2019.”

“That’s a big part of the flood that we’re dealing with,” Wyden had said. “The finance committee has jurisdiction over the customs offices. I brought them in and asked what else are they going to do to beef up our efforts to protect our state?”

So what are synthetic opioids? They’re a specific variety of drugs that are noticeably far more potent, addictive, and deadly when compared to the normal brand of opioids. You may recognize a couple of the names, but the most popular is undoubtedly fentanyl. Not only does this make the drugs far more harmful and dangerous, but it also causes substance interventions to have far less of an impact than it would with regular drugs. Make no mistake: these are nothing like the drugs we’ve seen in the past, like heroin or cocaine. If those drugs will ruin your life, these synthetic opioids will make recovering a garder feat than climbing Mt. Everest.

According to Kelsi Junge, the supervisor for Multnomah’s Harm Reduction Program, the big reason why many are overdosing is because they’re deciding to mix substances (often separated into stimulants (“uppers”) and depressants (“downers”)), which can cause major stress in your body. In fact, around 60% of overdose deaths in 2022 was caused by a mix of drugs instead of a single substance.

“Many people often combine fentanyl with stimulants in an effort to balance the effects, hoping it will enable them to stay awake to accomplish tasks or stay safe. Mixing or alternating stimulants and downers is physically hard on the body and it increases the chance of overdose.”

The health department does indeed have plans to keep addiction down and to curb the death toll in the form of four programs, which aim to tackle primary prevention, recovery support, harm reduction, and treatment.

Multnomah’s Behavioral Health Division is currently holding over 90 contracts that total over $13.6 million annually to try supporting these efforts, but not all of them have been well received. When the county announced they were going to distribute various smoking supplies, foil, and straws in order to tackle harm reduction, the backlash was enormous.

We’ll have to wait and see how things work out in the end, but for now, it seems our war on drugs is far from over.

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