Editorial: Opioid fight will be long, but Utah Legislature is on right track

One of the most important topics the Utah State Legislature is tackling in its 2018 session is literally a matter of life and death.

Lawmakers this year have put the opioid epidemic in their crosshairs, highlighting a range of related issues, such as the danger the drugs present to our youth, the role medical providers must play in order to curb the crisis and the state’s responsibility to take legal action against reckless opioid manufacturers. All the commotion won’t mean much unless significant legislation is ultimately signed into law, but the attention is encouraging given the destruction opioids have wrought in communities throughout Utah — including Park City.

One of the most intriguing efforts comes from Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, who last week requested the House Public Education Appropriations Committee provide $300,000 over the next two years for an opioid crisis education curriculum for adolescents.

The curriculum would be taught in middle and high schools, where teachers currently lack the materials to properly address the issue in their classrooms. During a committee hearing, Amy J. Hawkins, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center, laid out the stakes: As recently as 2015, she said, Utah ranked seventh in the nation for overdose deaths, causing a tremendous strain on the healthcare system. That’s not to mention the pain inflicted on families across the state.

Properly arming students with knowledge is critical if Utah is to dramatically reduce the devastation opioids cause here, Jenkins said. The logic is easy to follow, and lawmakers should do whatever they can to find room in the budget to fund the curriculum.

A Summit County lawmaker has also joined the fight. Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, whose district covers Park City and much of the county, sponsored a Senate resolution that touches on the dangers opioids prescribed by doctors can present. His legislation, S.C.R. 4, urges the state to study postoperative respiratory depression, a potentially fatal side effect sometimes seen in patients who take opioids after surgery. The resolution has passed both houses of the Legislature and it is now awaiting the governor’s signature.

Some of the other pieces of opioid-related legislation are aimed at things like improving statewide substance abuse treatments and increasing the requirements doctors must follow before they prescribe opioids.

Utahns shouldn’t expect the epidemic to go away with the flick of a politician’s pen. Defeating it will take many more years of sustained focus. Considered together, though, the efforts on Capitol Hill this winter represent an encouraging measure of progress.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this editorial misspelled Hawkins’ name as Amy Jenkins. 

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