Law enforcement, health care specialists share ideas with Bredesen during opioid roundtable

Zach Vance • Aug 22, 2018 at 11:30 PM

Former Tennessee governor and U.S. Senate hopeful Phil Bredesen didn’t come to the Carnegie Hotel Wednesday to woo voters or boast about his campaign.

He came to listen.

Bredesen hosted a roundtable with about 20 health care and law enforcement professionals to understand ways he could address the opioid epidemic, should Tennesseans choose to send him to Washington, D.C., in November.

He wanted to hear from the people on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, like 1st Judicial Assistant District Attorney Justin Irick, who sees a revolving door of addicts in the court system, and grassroots advocate Rhonda Coffey, whose son died of an opioid overdose in July 2015.

“I’ve always found that the best way to find out about something is not to read a white paper about what some institute thinks about it, but to talk to people who are on the front lines, (such as) law enforcement, treatment professionals and people who have some direct experience with it,” said Bredesen, a Democrat who was Tennessee’s governor between 2003 and 2011.

“That’s what I’m trying to do with these (roundtable meetings). They’re not political. I have no idea what party that people in these things belong to, or what their political views are. I just want to hear directly what their experiences have been and find out the best way to put together a strategy.

“The opioid problem is a very complex problem. I think if you try to solve all its facets, you’ll never get anywhere with it. What I’m looking for is, ‘What are two or three things we could do that would be the most effective and help the largest number of people that might be possible to do on the federal level?’ I began to make some progress here.”

It became evident, as the roundtable meeting went on, that views between law enforcement officials and health care professionals differed when it came to treating opioid addiction.

Many of the health care specialists in the room advocated for more funding to be disbursed among a variety of treatment options, whether it be short-term counseling, medication-assisted treatment or long-term residential treatment.

On the other end, Irick and other law enforcement officials shared concerns about medication-assisted treatment, like buprenorphine and methadone, compounding a person’s addiction.

“I’ve heard a lot of very encouraging words around this table for long-term, intensive treatment. And I share the opinion that’s absolutely the answer to this. If somebody finds themselves in a clinic that prescribes Suboxone or methadone, and that is the only method of treatment they’ve got, that is a recipe for disaster,” Irick said.

A case recently came across Irick’s desk that he shared with the roundtable.

He said a woman bought a gun with the intent of threatening her husband into telling her where their methadone was located. That threat resulted in her shooting him twice. Irick said the man survived, but when police came, they found 100 marijuana plants growing in the couple’s house.

“That methadone clinic was not a solution to her problems. It was contributing to her problem,” Irick said.

Dr. Timothy Smyth, director of the Overmountain Recovery treatment center in Gray, succinctly described the conundrum addiction specialists face on daily basis.

“Of course there’s going to be tens, maybe hundreds of anecdotal stories about folks he just described, but methadone treatment has been around since 1965 ... The evidence about it keeping people alive is irrefutable. You have to be alive to get into recovery,” Smyth said.

“I can share with you some stories of patients I have at the methadone clinic that I scratch my head every day, ‘Should I be allowing this person to dose today because of this, that and the other thing?’ And I go back to the literature (which says) if I don’t, their risk of dying (from overdose) goes up tremendously. Am I suppose to keep them alive?”

At the onset of the discussion, Dr. Robert Pack, executive director of East Tennessee State University’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment, stressed the importance of understanding the definition of recovery, as it relates to opioid addiction.

“It’s so important to start the conversation about the definition of recovery ... (It’s) functioning, thriving and people getting back into a life that is meaningful and with purpose,” Pack said.

“I see folks in long-term counseling with and without medication-assisted treatment that are doing great. So I think it’s imperative that we have this conversation upfront and often about the meaning of recovery. I think there is going to be some disagreement about it, but we need to respectfully disagree, respect each other’s perspectives and learn.” 

Leaving the roundtable, his eighth since launching his Senate bid, Bredesen said he’d like to give law enforcement more tools to go after the “pill mills” and bad actors.

He also took a slight dig at his Republican opponent Marsha Blackburn, by saying a bill she co-sponsored, which reportedly stripped the Drug Enforcement Agency of its ability to freeze suspicious opioid shipments, should be overturned.

Blackburn has been quoted in the Tennessean as admitting her bill should be revisited, but those comments were made over 300 days ago.

Bredesen and Blackburn will challenge each other in the Nov. 6 election to replace retiring Sen. Bob Corker.

Eds. Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that police found 10 marijuana plants when they responded to a shooting between a wife and husband. Police actually found 100 plants. Irick said that woman is currently serving time in federal prison. 


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