Coalition meets in Pierce County to plan battle against opioid crisis

TACOMA, Wash. – Law enforcement, health care and elected leaders converged in Tacoma Friday to focus on a plan to battle the opioid crisis in our region.

Together they’re trying to identify strategies to curb new addictions and end the stigma for addicts who might be searching for help.

But there are also other groups already on the street trying to make an impact where it’s needed most.

This coming summer marks the 30th year for the Tacoma Needle Exchange.

“No matter what, there is no barrier,” said outreach worker Sean Hemmerle.  “You will get help here.”

The blue minivan Hemmerle works out of, sitting in the parking lot at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, offers a way for drug users to swap dirty needles for clean ones. The exchange also has been handing out an overdose-reversing drug that can save lives.

“We’ve given out about 2,000 kits and we’ve had a couple hundred documented reversals,” he said.

Lori, one of the exchange’s clients, says if it weren’t for the program she might not be here today.

“We’d be nowhere, we’d be dead,” she said. “There’s people out there dying who don’t want to come here because they’re afraid to.”

Stigma, and other issues surrounding addiction and the opioid epidemic, were top topics for law enforcement, medical professionals and elected officials at the Pierce County Opioid Summit on Friday, hosted at University of Washington Tacoma.

“We’re dealing with a condition of opiate use disorder that last people’s lifetimes, so we really need to change the way communities think about this,” said Caleb Banta-Green with the UW.

Those invited to the meeting were tasked with coming up with ways to reduce the number of drug users dying on the streets, and finding ways to end the stigma of drug addiction.

“We should not be ashamed. Don’t hide in the shadows, tell your stories,” said Penny LeGate, founder of The Marah Project. “We can save more lives by explaining to the public this can happen to anyone.”

The Tacoma Fire Department is also now handing out Narcan to addicts in an attempt to keep people from dying on the streets.

“We don’t charge anything, we’re an anon program,” Hemmerle said. “The stigma of even letting us know that they’re using, some people just don’t want anyone to know. And they’d rather use a needle for an entire week.”

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department also offers substance abuse treatment and counseling – including a methadone clinic where officials say patients can be seen in a matter of days.