Local Governments Continue to Fight the Opioid Crisis

Through new approaches, community outreach and education, and even legal action, municipal governments are continuing to lead the most comprehensive efforts to date in the battle against widespread opioid addiction.

The increasing presence of the synthetic opioid fentanyl at the scene of a drug overdose is putting the lives of first responders at great risk. Following the sickening of paramedics and emergency medical technicians who respond to overdose cases in Maryland, Ohio, and New Jersey, among others, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has issued warnings about the risks of accidental overdoses due to exposure to fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.

Despite these risks, the severity of the opioid epidemic remains a strong motivation for city and town leaders to rally their communities to fight this public health crisis. Nowhere is this clearer than in the visions put forth by city mayors in their annual State of the City addresses.

In his address earlier this year, Mayor Tom Tait of Anaheim, California, summed up the viewpoint of city leaders working to curtail drug addiction:

“To deal with addiction, we need a culture of kindness. These issues are generational. We can’t just do things for a couple of years and hang it up. We cannot allow any financial issue we face, or any prejudices we may encounter, to stop these critical programs.”

Leadership on the issue of prescription drug addiction, overdose and death is becoming the hallmark of city and town government in America. In community after community — whether urban, suburban, or rural — elected and appointed officials are taking up the roles of organizers, preachers, champions, change agents and program implementers.

Drug Free Anaheim is just one example of this trend of growing local programs. Adopting the models already implemented in cities such as Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire, Drug Free Anaheim allows persons seeking treatment for addiction to approach any police officer and ask for help. The city partners with Social Model Recovery Systems, Inc. and locally-based BioCorRx to connect those in need to addiction treatment programs.

A New Approach

Learning from the disastrous incarceration consequences of the “War on Drugs,” city leaders are adopting a “do no harm” approach. They are viewing addiction as the complex disease it is rather than as a criminal offense.

In his State of the City address, Mayor Richard David of Binghamton, New York, reminded his residents that “there is no greater force tearing neighborhoods apart and inciting criminal activity than heroin,” adding that “law enforcement actions alone will not fix the heroin crisis.” Mayor Alan Casavant of Biddleford, Maine, stated, “What I discovered was that there was no simple solution; a multi-targeted approach was necessary.”

In Biddleford, one solution was a partnership with the neighboring city of Saco to fund a coordinator who assists police officers in linking persons suffering from addiction and their families to resources and services needed for recovery. In a like manner, the city of Binghamton also funded an Intensive Care Navigator position that supports clients who are leaving a local short-term addiction crisis center and awaiting placement at a long-term care facility.

In Everett, Washington, Mayor Ray Stephanson paired police officers with clinical social workers. The city’s Community Outreach and Enforcement Team includes full-time social workers who help connect those living on the streets with addiction treatment and related services. Every patrol officer also carries the life-saving anti-opioid medication Naloxone.


Stopping addiction before it starts is the surest path to success. The city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, increased community outreach efforts with the Fort Wayne Community School District to engage children at a younger age.

The city Office of Substance Use Disorder in Revere, Massachusetts, is successful already in its education efforts. Initial reports from 2016 data show emergency calls for overdoses decreased 24 percent from a year earlier. The office staff uses the data they have collected to drive actions in partnership with police and fire departments, city staff and medical professionals. Mayor Brian Arrigo has said that their team is ready to “go knocking on the doors of each and every person we can identify that may need help battling addiction.”

Legal Action

Huntington, West Virginia, and other cities have filed law suits against pharmaceutical distributors, arguing that the companies failed to comply with state laws that limit the amount of prescription medications shipped into the state and that they failed to follow up with reports of suspicious orders for pain medication.

In another suit, the city of Dayton, Ohio, alleges that drug manufacturers engaged in fraudulent marketing regarding the risks and benefits of the prescription opioids that ultimately fueled Ohio’s opioid epidemic. “We are beyond a crisis, we have lost so many people, we are in a state of emergency, and we need action now,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. “We believe the drug companies made this mess, and it is time they start paying the costs.”

The city of Everett is also suing manufacturers of prescription painkillers, arguing that companies turned a blind eye to the criminal trafficking of pills to “reap large and obscene profits” and demanding they foot the bill for widespread opioid addiction in the community.

To explore other resources and tools, or to read the recommendations of the National City-County Task Force on the Opioids Epidemic, visit opioidaction.org. For a story containing detailed, research-driven information about the opioid epidemic and why locally-based experiments should be encouraged and replicated broadly, read Taking On the Scourge of Opioids by Sally Satel.

For a complete roundup of the issues discussed by U.S. mayors during their 2017 State of the City addresses, read NLC’s 2017 State of the Cities report.

Featured image from Getty Images.

About the author: Jim Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.