Tribune Editorial: Utah let a killer run loose in small towns

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic rolls past a billboard bringing attention to the opioid crisis along U.S. Route 191 in Carbon County where 93 people have died to opioid overdose between 2000 and 2018, according to data from the Utah Department of Health.

The quantities are stunning.

Each year from 2006 to 2012, two million opioid pills poured into Carbon County, population 20,000. More than 100 pills for every man, woman and child every 12 months.

Next door in Emery County, it was 65 pills a year for every person.

The result was a trail of despair. Addiction. Crime. Overdose. Suicide.

Utah was not unique. Like the meth plague that came earlier, rural communities across the country not only didn’t escape the opioid epidemic. They fell further than most urban and suburban communities.

There is plenty of blame to spread.

There are the drug companies, of course, who built the pipeline on assurances that the pills were safe. Efforts to now hold them accountable through the courts are laudable.

And there are doctors and pharmacists who blithely kept writing and filling prescriptions long after the true effects became known. The only pharmacy in Emery County filled orders for 4.8 million opioid pills over those seven years before tightening its rules on refills.

There also was a failure of leadership in rural communities. Much of the damage was unavoidable, but it didn’t have to be this bad. These supposedly tight knit communities built on old-fashioned values turned a blind eye for too long.

The damage cut across income, religion and age lines. It wasn’t public knowledge how many pills were flooding in, but everyone knew there was trouble because everyone knew someone who had perished. Government, civic and ecclesiastical leaders all share some responsibility for the slow response.

Many a politician likes to point to rural Utah as the values-driven backbone of the state. That wasn't the case here. Too many political leaders in opioid-soaked counties spent too much of their political capital fighting over federal lands and chasing foolish energy dreams during that period. They should have been using those trips to Capitol Hill to ask for money for treatment instead of coal trains.

There are now important and needed efforts to bring the Wasatch Front's economic benefits to the rest of the state — coal country in particular. But to do that, those communities also need the state's help to shore up their safety nets. A healthier economy helps drive a healthier population, but these towns can’t wait for the next boom to fix their busted people.

And rural Utah needs to see this for what it is. When a million pills roll into town, one stoplight isn’t going to slow them down.

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