LITTLE ROCK - Last year 384 Arkansas residents died from an overdose of prescription painkillers.
That is an increase of one person over the previous year, when 383 people died from an overdose of opioid pain medication. In 2014 there were 356 deaths in Arkansas due to opioid overdoses.
The Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor heard a report from the state Health Department on the effectiveness of recently enacted laws designed to curb the alarming surge in abuse of painkillers over the past ten years.
Opioids are the most widely prescribed type of drug in Arkansas. For example, last year 236 million pills were sold in the state, compared to 102 million depressants and 712,000 stimulants.
A Health Department official told the committee that the number of opioids sold in Arkansas in 2016 was enough for every man, woman and child in the state to have taken 80 pills.
Another way of looking at the prevalence of opioid sales is to consider that for every adult over the age of 25 in Arkansas, a prescription for opioids was written.
In the past few years the legislature has enacted a series of laws to address the crisis in abuse of prescription drugs, including Acts 1208, 901, 1114, 1222 and 895 of 2015, Act 1331 of 2013 and Act 304 of 2011.
Act 304 established the prescription drug monitoring program to combat the illegal trade of prescriptions. Act 1331 prevents "doctor shopping," a practice in which drug abusers go to numerous physicians to obtain prescriptions.
The other laws modify the drug monitoring program, for example, by allowing access to law enforcement officials and licensing boards.
According to the Health Department, the new laws have been effective in reducing "doctor shopping" by half. The number of drug users who went to at least seven physicians or at least seven pharmacies in 2016 was half the number who did so in 2015.
The problem is getting worse, however. The rate of drug-related injuries and deaths due to overdoses has more than doubled since 2000, increasing from 5.1 per 100,000 people to 13.4 per 100,000 people.
The epidemic is not only a challenge for law enforcement and drug abuse treatment programs, it is a strain on the resources of social service agencies. Specifically, it has affected foster care and child welfare programs because the spiraling abuse of opioid prescriptions has resulted in growing numbers of children being removed from their homes.
In 2015 drug or alcohol abuse by the parents was the reason given for removing children from their families in 34.4 percent of all child abuse and neglect cases nationwide. That compares to 18.5 percent in 2000.
In certain areas the problem is even worse. In Ohio last year, drug abuse was the reason cited in more than half of the cases in which a child was removed from his or her family.
Experts are learning that due to the potency of opioids, the recovery period from addiction is longer than it is for cocaine and meth, and the possibilities of a relapse are greater.
When addicted parents spend longer periods in rehab, their children must spend longer periods in foster care. That adds strain to the already over-burdened foster care system.