MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - We're blessed to live along Memphis' beautiful parkway system with its lush trees and lovely homes. Every once in a while, the litter in the grassy tree lined median that divides North Parkway gets our attention and it's time to clean up.
Amid discarded beer bottles, chip bags, and empty cigarette packs uncovered today was a small wrapper that's become a reality check for this reporter. Evidence of America's heroin epidemic was blowing in the litter right in front of our home.
It just so happens Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings had Narcan on his mind today at the Memphis Rotary Club, where he was the featured speaker for a standing room only lunchtime crowd.
"We have a heroin epidemic that is sweeping the nation that we cannot ignore," Rallings said. "122 Memphians died of a heroin overdose in 2016. The Fire Department issued almost 1,700 doses of Narcan that brings people back from the brink of death and brings them back to life. So if the Fire Department had not been there and issued those doses of Narcan, we would have an astronomical number of dead Memphians in Memphis and Shelby County.
"If that does not shake you in your seat," the police director said, "then something is wrong with you."
A quick check with Judge Tim Dwyer of Shelby County Drug Court confirms the rising tide of opioid addition in the Memphis area.
"In 2014 over 28% of drug court defendants said prescription opiates and heroin were their drug of choice," Dwyer said. "In 2015, it was 36 percent. In 2016, it was around 43 percent."
How big is the problem? The graphs on charts at the National Institutes of Health all show overdose deaths rising dramatically
The crisis is out of control in New Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie revealed today that EMTs and other first responders administered Narcan 10,000 times statewide in 2016. The Governor devoted the lion's share of his 2017 "State of the State" address to the drug epidemic after 1,600 overdose deaths in New Jersey from heroin and other opioids in 2016.
"Our friends are dying. Our neighbors are dying. Our co-workers are dying. Our children are dying. Every day in numbers we cannot ignore," Christie said.
The Governor called for increasing state funding for drug treatment and announced a one stop shop website for information on what to do when a loved one needs help. The Governor called for a robust new effort in New Jersey schools to educate children about opioids and the dangers of addiction.
"Hoping and praying alone will not make it better. Arresting, jailing and stigmatizing the victims will not make it better," Christie said.
Back here in Memphis, MPD Director Rallings told Rotarians, "We cannot ignore the heroin epidemic. We cannot ignore the epidemic of gangs. We cannot ignore the epidemic of violence in our community and we all are going to have to do something about it," but the police director said it was up to the entire community (with the MPD as a partner) to devise a response to the drug crisis.
There's a good chance evidence of the opioid epidemic might be blowing in the wind on your street, too.