by Brian Clay
In Shelby County, opioid use has gone from a mild concern to a full-blown crisis affecting all Memphians regardless of economic, social, racial or even spiritual background.
The opioid crisis has become serious enough for Shelby County Commission Chairwoman Heidi Shafer to make it her mission to eradicate this perplexing social ill, potentially affecting her political future as it has put her in the crosshairs of Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr..
The issue should be simple. Is the opioid crisis in Shelby County a legal matter that should be a law enforcement issue? Or is it a legislative issue that should be eradicated through legislative sanctions on pharmaceutical companies that have caused many Memphians to become unwilling addicts?
In November, Shafer aggressively made the opioid issue the presentiment when she announced the commission had filed suit against pharmaceutical companies.
“Our attorneys are in the final stages of launching litigation which we believe will result in significant recovery for the hundreds of millions of dollars Shelby County has spent trying to heal, nurse and deal with the opioid crisis for the benefit of our citizens,” Shafer said at the time.
Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland was the first to come to the aid of Shafer.
“If we wait on the attorney general of Tennessee to file suit, then the state will determine how much we get. If we sue in state court, we have a seat at the table, a better chance to recoup the resources we have lost,” said Roland.
The lawsuit against several pharmaceutical companies was filed last month on behalf of the county, but Luttrell, who says his administration was already working on a plan, was blindsided by the lawsuit announcement.
“They are not speaking as a voice for the county commission,” said Luttrell. “That has to be really initiated through the county attorney’s office and we would rely very heavily on the county attorney to give us the guidance we need legally to file a lawsuit.”
However, Shafer’s passion on this issue is not just based on the damages that need to be recouped or legislative action that Luttrell had already planned on the opioid crisis. It is based on the human element that has turned Memphis into one of the unfortunate cities affected by opioid addiction.
Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner has become one of the chief supporters of Shafer regarding the opioid issue.
“Mayor Luttrell seems to be concerned about the financial backlash that will affect the overall Shelby County budget, however, it’s the quality of life of individuals in Shelby County that I am concerned about. That makes this issue one of the most serious issues in our county today,” said Turner, who is also a practicing attorney.
Shafer has been on a crusade, appearing on several talk shows to educate the community on the dangers of opioids.
“Everyone knows that Memphis/Shelby County has one of the highest murder rates in the United States. The death rate from opioids in Shelby County has now eclipsed that in 2017, and only appears to be escalating as we move into 2018,” said Shafer on radio on “The Bev Johnson Show,” where she appeared with Turner and myself.
On the OAM Network podcast, Shafer, Turner and Memphis City Councilman Edmund Ford Jr., appeared on “The Brian Clay Chronicles Lecture Series” and engaged in a discussion on the opioid crisis in Shelby County. Ford, who plans to run for the Shelby County Commission in 2018, explained how his professional role as a mathematics instructor has made him more aware of the opioid crisis in Memphis. He often refers students who may be dealing with these issues to guidance counselors or mental health professionals to assist them.
I recently interviewed health care professionals and patients at a local dialysis unit and all concurred that the opioid crisis in Shelby County has become a serious battle within the Bluff City.
“I have seen individuals come into the dialysis clinics, suffering from end stage renal failure, never once using opioids. However, physicians who have side deals with major pharmaceutical companies prescribe various opioids for pain or various ailments, and virtually turn innocent people into junkies. It’s quite sad,” said a current patient, whose name has been withheld for confidentiality.
One registered nurse said the escalating cost of healthcare is a direct result of patients going into the emergency room and seeking opioids because they are unknowingly addicted.
“This throws off the entire ER experience, many times forcing ER professionals to comply and give unneeded opioids to patients, which only crowds ERs and does not allow serious patients to get care. Something must be done,” said the nurse, whose name is also withheld for confidentiality.
However, Luttrell’s response to this issue is truly perplexing. A former warden for the Shelby County corrections department, Luttrell seems to believe that opioid addiction is a law enforcement issue. As many remember during the crack/cocaine epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the only remedy to address that vicious battle that virtually ruined many traditional African-American neighborhoods was violent law enforcement. This left many African-Americans incarcerated, with homes and neighborhoods torn apart.
Shafer should be applauded for being a champion and leading the cause against this vicious cycle of opioid abuse. For Memphis to continue to grow and become a prosperous city, hurdles such as the opioid issue must be a collective effort that is beyond political ideology and includes unification among our leaders in this community.
(Brian Clay is founder/executive director of Greater Memphis Media, Inc.; executive producer of “The Brian Clay Chronicles” and creator/CEO THE IVisionPROJECT.org.)