Exploring the impacts of opioid use on individuals, families, friends and communities in Utah led Utah Public Radio to the Uintah Basin. In Vernal, the boom and bust of demands for oil has left many residents without work. We wondered if unemployment, job injuries, and a depressed economy had led to an increase in opioid abuse.
According to a July 2017 Utah Department of Human Services report assessing Utah’s opioid crisis, the number of opioid related deaths in the Uintah County is fairly low, compared to other counties in the State. But numbers don’t always provide an accurate account of what is happening in a community.
On the morning I was enjoying biscuits and gravy for breakfast at a local diner, my server and I began a polite conversation. It went from why I was in town to him telling me that he served on the Vernal City Council.
“I love this community,” said Dave Everett.
Everett didn’t have specific numbers or statistics about opioid or heroin use he could share. He knows through observations and conversations that there is a problem. Three years ago, when demand and prices for oil dropped, so did the economy and the housing market. He doesn’t need reports and records to tell him things are bad. There was a café full of locals who could attest to the financial and emotional scars that build up when the bust hits.
“Addiction is a difficult thing,” said Dave Knowels, a regular at Betty’s Diner who overhears our conversation.
“There are a lot of people who cycle through it and they don’t ever really get out of it. Destroys lives and destroys children’s lives, which is the worst part of it,” he said.
At one point Knowels and his brother ran a drug treatment facility in Utah County. It was the largest in the state. Most of their clients came from area drug courts. Now he works for what is left of oil drilling opportunities.
“My history with substance abuse started as a police officer working undercover. I kinda saw the whole problem from that side of it. As fast as we could take it off the street they would put it back on. I didn’t feel like we were winning the battle,”Knowels said.
After ordering a breakfast of waffles and eggs, Cherish Morrell joins in on the conversation. She agrees her community has a problem. Everywhere you go, she said, the subject of drug use here is the talk of the town.
“I’ve been an EMT for a few years here, and we have gone on a lot of drugs calls,” Morrell said. “Seeing that first hand and how it has destroyed these families and these homes, it is pretty sickening. We need to do whatever we can to prevent it from getting to that point.”
During her ten years of living in Vernal, Morrell said she has seen a lot of people come and go. Most of the transient population trend comes from the up and down demands for oil. High paying jobs push the population and force the building of more homes, schools, and community support programs.
“When they are here they have very demanding jobs,” Morrell said. “They work a lot of hours. They are doing hard, physical labor. They are required to stay awake and be sharp. They turn to drugs.”
Those high paying jobs come with a price. Pushing and pulling while building and running an oil rig can take a physical toll. Injuries that lead to pain killer prescriptions are not uncommon.
“The kind of labor they do can also result in injury,” Morrell said. “And that gets drug use started.”
Knowels and Morrell agree that workers make a lot of money during the boom. They have seen neighbors and colleagues invest in homes and costly vehicles.
“They have a lot of money,” Morrell said. “Drugs allow them to keep up with the lifestyle that is required of them while they are here.”
Some survive the financial and emotional realities of being out of work when the industry shuts down. If you are on the management or corporate end of the oil work line some larger companies will pay the cost of relocation. Workers who excavate and operate drill sites sometimes find themselves unable to afford a move.
Deb Prisbrey relocated to Vernal in 2011. Her husband worked for the oilfield service company Halliburton at a time when drilling oil was big business.
“What I have noticed in the last year or so since the economy went, was the opiate use has probably tripled,” Prisbrey said.
After going through an addiction recovery program, Prisbrey hasn’t ingested drugs or alcohol for 19 years. She celebrates her success by helping others as a therapist.
“I have probably buried 11 clients in the last couple of years from heroin overdoses, and that is very, very sad to me,” she said.
Prisbrey travels the state of Utah as the secretary for Utah Substance Abuse Professionals. Members of the organization provide community training and support. They also gather at the Utah State Capitol and in Washington D.C. as advocates. Right now they are lobbying for additional funding to build drug treatment centers in rural Utah communities.
“Criminalizing people who have a substance abuse disorder does not make any sense to me,” Prisbrey said. “It is human warehousing.”
Vernal City Assistant Police Chief Keith Campbell said incarcerating a heroin or opioid user may not be ideal, but it can save lives. At one time there was a Suboxone drug treatment center in Vernal. It has closed. Some law enforcement and emergency medical personnel carry Narcan, a nasal spray form of the drug naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.
“No question about it, we don’t have an adequate system to assist people who truly want to change,” said Campbell.
It is not unusual for the Uintah County Jail to be used as place to hold individuals that some would argue should not be treated as criminals because they are abusing a substance.
“Some people have to be protected from themselves,” Campbell said. “Being in jail sucks, and going through withdrawal sucks. It won’t kill you, you just feel like you want to die and the safest place is in a facility where a person flat cannot use. Given the option and you continue to use, a lot of times that is where our deaths are coming from.”
The closest detox facility to Vernal is in Heber, more than two hours away.
Campbell said it can take more than 90 days to arrange help for someone in his town who says they are ready to detox.
“If a person is at that point in their life that they are begging for help and rehabilitation and are begging for the cure and we are dumb enough to think that we are going to start working on getting you some help, and we can probably get that arranged in 90 days and that in 90 days they are going to be ready for a cure, they cannot wait 90 days.” he said.
In September the Federal government awarded $1.7 million to 11 Utah health centers to fight opioid addiction. Funding is part of President Donald Trump’s plan to help rural communities. None of the money will be used to build treatment centers, but instead will support existing health care centers. This round of money will not be used to support even temporary services for heroin or opioid users in the Uintah Basin.
Jessica Hulsey Nickel is president and CEO of the national Addiction Policy Forum in Washington D.C. The organization helps more than 4 million families, health care providers, and support organizations find resources to treat those with a substance abuse illness.
“There are 21 million individuals in this country with active addiction,” Nickel said. “Only ten percent will receive treatment for that this year.”
She believes President Donald Trump's declaration of a nationwide public health emergency to treat the opioid epidemic is a good beginning. For communities like Vernal where there are limited resources, an unstable economy, and few treatment options Nickels suggests local leaders take action now. This can be done, she says, at a time when state leaders have the option of redirecting existing grants to better deal with the opioid crisis.
This series is brought to you in part by the Association for Utah Community Health, providing training and technical assistance to health centers and affiliates across Utah. More information available here.