Lack of resources thwarts Nevada’s response to opioid crisis, officials say

Virtual town hall discusses need to boost focus on underserved communities

By: - January 28, 2022 5:50 am

(Screengrab of Opioid Overdose Town Hall)

There aren’t enough resources in the community to address an opioid overdose crisis, and marginalized and minority communities often bear the brunt, Las Vegas City Councilman Brian Knudsen told a town hall Thursday night.

Knudsen joined other public officials, care providers and those affected by addiction  during a virtual forum to discuss Nevada’s response to the opioid epidemic and gather input on what more can be done. 

The conversation also tried to focus on deficits within communities of color and among other underserved populations. 

Knudsen painted a bleak picture of the court system where those experiencing homelessness who struggle with drug addiction, often resulting in their arrests, seldom have options for treatment. 

“When the judge tries to get them out of jail and into a sentence program … it really is handshake agreements and phone calls to anybody and everybody they know to say, ‘how can we get this person housed’ or ‘how can we get this person into a treatment center,’” he said. “That’s not a system that supports all people. That’s a system that supports people of privilege. We as a community need to understand that there’s not enough resources to allow for everyone to have access.”

During the virtual town hall, participants were provided a space to write anonymous comments about how overdose has affected them. Many shared about stigma and misconceptions while also advocating for better treatment options and increasing the availability of Naloxone, which reverses an overdose.  

Reiterating what Knudsen said, some mentioned the fear of criminalization being a barrier to getting treatment. 

“My neighbor overdosed. She was revived but ended up in prison due to failing drug court,” someone wrote anonymously. “Jail and prison is not an appropriate treatment.” 

Others commented on how they’ve encountered people who struggle with addictions and are ready to get into treatment, but face a two week wait for an available bed. 

Knudsen also acknowledged the failure by officials to engage communities of color when dealing with the opioid epidemic. 

While his ward has about a 36% Latino population, he said “one of the scariest facts for me is that literally I can count on one hand in two and a half years someone from the Latino community who’s reached out and asked for help.” 

“I think that’s a huge failure for me, and I own that,” he said. “That’s a huge failure on behalf of local and other government agencies where we haven’t created that warm, nurturing environment where people feel comfortable reaching out and asking for help.”

Knudsen said the City of Las Vegas recently received a $1.6 million grant from the federal government to focus on health disparities in minority communities. 

“As community leaders, I think we have an obligation to figure out what is it going to take to get our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) community and every other marginalized community comfortable with asking for help and what is our responsibility for making sure there is help there when they do ask for help,” Knudsen. “That’s a big journey, and I can tell you right now I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being at the end of it. I think we’re at the very beginning stages.”

Drug addiction, in particular the opioid crisis, has been an issue the state, like many states across the country, has been fighting for years. 

The Nevada State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS) reported in the fall that accidental overdose deaths increased 55% in 2020 –  reported 788 people in Nevada died that year from an accidental drug overdose, up from 510 people in 2019.

State Sen. Fabian Doñate pointed to a few actions lawmakers took during the 2021 session aimed at providing help going forward. 

Senate Bill 390 established a hotline for people experiencing a behavioral health crisis, which Doñate said is “crucial for getting people the right kind of care at the right time and for increasing that access to care.” 

The legislation also set up a fund to hold proceeds from litigation steaming from the opioid epidemic. The Department of Health and Human Services is supposed to conduct a needs assessment to determine priorities for allocating the money.

Lawmakers also passed Assembly Bill 138, which removes barriers that prevent people convicted of drug offenses from accessing assistance such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

He agreed there needs to be more work done.

“I believe it’s important that we lead this conversation, not through the lens of healthcare delivery or the economic impact that is left behind, but rather, we must lead on this issue through the lens of compassion,” Doñate said. “Compassion for our most vulnerable, compassion for our families that have dealt with this tragedy and compassion for those who have lost their loved ones from the opioid crisis.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.