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Gov. Walker signs administrative order to address Alaska’s opioid epidemic

By Liz Raines Photojournalist: Cale Green - 9:57 PM February 16, 2017
JUNEAU –

Gov. Bill Walker signed an administrative order Thursday requiring all state departments to join the search for federal funding to help fight heroin and prescription drug abuse in Alaska.

On Tuesday, Walker declared the state’s opioid crisis a public health disaster. According to the declaration, the number of deaths associated with heroin in Alaska more than quadrupled between 2009 and 2015. 

Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jay Butler, says the numbers constitute an epidemic, and Walker has vowed to treat the problem with the same urgency he would any deadly disaster, such as a wildfire or tsunami.

More than 744 Alaskans have died in seven years at the hands of heroin and other opiate drug overdoses. And for the first time, four people overdosed in one day — in the small village of Quinhagak. Phyllis Roberts lost her 19 year-old daughter Jamie Roberts.

“She used to like to go riding, berry picking. She used to love cutting fish, helping people,” Roberts said of her daughter.

It’s stories like her’s that have pushed Walker to declare Alaska’s opioid epidemic a disaster.

“Everywhere we go around the state we hear stories of loss of a loved one, loss of a child a nephew, a friend,” Walker told reporters at a press conference Thursday.

In addition to the administrative order, Walker says he will introduce legislation on the 5-point plan he outlined in his State of the State address for limiting access to opioids in Alaska. That plan would:

  1. Limit the amount of opioids a doctor can prescribe
  2. Strengthen the prescription drug-monitoring program
  3. Give regulatory authority to classify new, illicit opioids as controlled substances when they emerge
  4. Improve screening and enforcement measures to restrict the transport of illegal opioids and heroin into rural communities
  5. Require licensed health care providers to complete opioid addiction education

“What seems to be on first glance of this plan that’s really missing is this piece about harm reduction for folks who are currently using,” said Alix Lutnick, a Berkley graduate and Senior Research Scientist with RTI international.

Lutnick has studied drug abuse in other countries. She says one of the most effective approaches she’s seen was in Portugal, where the country decriminalized the personal use of opioids.

“More people are enrolling into drug treatment. So people feel like now that there aren’t these legal sanctions against me once I’m ready to get treatment, one I can go into it and two there are actually treatment spots open,” said Lutnick.

Governor walker wouldn’t say whether he favors decriminalization.

“That’s an issue more in line, certainly, with the attorney general, Department of Law and Department of Public Safety,” he told reporters. “I don’t think we can arrest our way out of this situation.”

It’s a situation that ends tragically for too many Alaskans — a wave of abuse that has reached every corner of our state. 

Gov. Walker secured a federal grant of just over $4 million for the next five years to deal with the epidemic. With the legal cover of the disaster declaration he now plans to use that money to distribute the life-saving overdose drug Naloxone to people close to those addicted. 

KTVA 11’s Liz Raines can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.

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