Nevada’s Community Conversation on Substance Abuse started with a powerful slideshow set to music about an Ames woman, who was only 25 years old when she lost her life to a synthetic opioid overdose.

That young woman’s mother, Natasha Terrones, now an advocate in the fight against substance abuse, was unable to attend the public forum, which was held last week, May 8, at the Josephine Tope Community Auditorium at Nevada High School. Still, Terrones shared a letter — read aloud by Cheri DeGroot — about the horror of losing a child to drugs and the question that continues to haunt her, “Why did this have to happen?”

Last week’s community forum was sponsored by the Nevada Substance Abuse Task Force to continue a community-wide discussion about substance abuse focused on prevention, treatment and recovery resources. The Nevada Substance Abuse Task Force was formed in 2018 following a city-sponsored meeting in March of that year on substance abuse.

Nevada Mayor Brett Barker hosted last week’s public forum. Barker, a pharmacist, noted that his profession makes the discussion about drugs even more important to him. “How fortunate we are to live in a community where people are willing to come together for a forum like this,” Barker said as he looked out to the audience of around 50 people. “We want to learn how we can all take positive steps together.”

Featured speakers for the forum included law enforcement officers Geoff Huff, an Ames Police Commander, and Josh Cizmadia, a Nevada Police Sergeant; and Dr. Alan Bollinger, D.O., who practices addiction medicine with PHC (Primary Health Care) in Des Moines.

From the law enforcement side

Huff and Cizmadia made it clear that substance abuse doesn’t discriminate. “It hits all ages, all races and all economic classes,” said Huff.

One thing law enforcement sees often is the abuse of prescription meds, especially painkillers.

“Family members can help,” Cizmadia said. “If drugs aren’t being used … take them to a drop-off location.” Ames PD has a drop-off location in the front lobby of the police station, which is open 24/7, 365 days a year, and Nevada has a drop-off inside the Justice Center lobby near the sheriff’s office, which is accessible during regular business hours.

Cizmadia was happy to report that while the epidemic of opioid abuse had been rising for many years, the most recent data shows it is tracking downward in the Midwest. He said these reports mean that efforts to combat the problem are working, or there’s another major drug of choice on the horizon that law enforcement isn’t aware of yet.

Even with some positive reports lately, it doesn’t mean the problem is gone. The fight with substance abuse, both officers agreed, is far from over.

NARCAN has helped fight the opioid crisis. Huff said Ames PD has used it nine times to save lives. Cizmadia said Nevada responders have, in the past 12 months, used it eight times, and three of those times it was administered by officers. “In 2017, we had a high school student who took a lethal dose of Fentanyl,” Cizmadia said, and he said Fentanyl is a dangerously strong drug. “Just a little bit of it (and it’s often added to heroin) can kill you.”

As good as it is that NARCAN can save lives, it can also be abused, the officers said. While law enforcement and emergency personnel have used it to immediately stop the effects of a drug overdose, addicts can also use it as a safety net, so they can continue to abuse drugs and know that NARCAN can save them if they go too far.

Cizmadia and Huff said in Ames and Nevada the biggest misused controlled substances are alcohol and marijuana. And they warn that the marijuana they see being misused is much stronger than the recreationally used marijuana of the 1960s and ’70s.

These officers also pointed out that drug abuse is absolutely a community problem, even if some may think it isn’t their problem. Because of the huge profits that can be made by selling drugs, and the extreme addiction that sets in with the effect of a person needing to take in more and more of a controlled substance to get to the point of intoxication they desire, the addict will go to any means to get the money to buy that drug. Drug use is usually connected to a rise in property crimes, financial crimes, fraud and prostitution.

Huff emphasized the importance of people using the “Good Samaritan Law” when it comes to reporting a drug overdose. The law protects a person from prosecution, as long as that person stays on the scene and cooperates fully with first responders. The law will not protect a drug dealer or person who sold someone drugs.

From the medical side

In Dr. Bollinger’s eyes, the most dangerous drug out there is the one that an addict is using. “The most lethal drug … is the one that kills you,” he said, and he added that one of the most common drugs that is abused is alcohol. “A third more people die from alcohol,” he said, than any other drug.

But, “in reality, the drug is not the problem.” It’s what can’t be seen that’s the problem.

Bollinger said the medical profession, when it comes to drug use and abuse, “sucks.” He went back to when doctors actually got to know their patients. Now, he said, most patients are rushed through doctors’ offices at a more rapid pace, so doctors don’t get to the heart of most matters.

Bollinger got into addictions medicine after seeing a major need for care in this area. “Most of the stuff I learned in med school is obsolete” in treating addicts, he said.

When treating addicts, he has to ask people, “What does this drug do for you?” And the majority of addicts will answer, he said, that they didn’t want to feel anything. “I want to escape reality.”

There’s a huge need for more doctors to practice addictions medicine, Bollinger said, and treating addicts takes a lot of understanding of things that go beyond just physical health.

He asked for a show of hands of people who were presently dealing with a loved one struggling with addiction. Well over half of the people in the auditorium raised a hand, and Bollinger wasn’t surprised. He offered a piece of advice to those who raised a hand. If you really want to help your loved one, “change the focus from the drug to the person,” he said.

“(Addicts) aren’t crazy; they’re desperate.” He said he doesn’t spend time talking to his patients about the drugs, he spends time talking to them about their relationships. “Counseling … that’s the key … but it’s got to be good counseling.”

Another thing Bollinger shared was what he called the “primary fuel” for drug addiction. “Guilt.” Or “fear.” Treating an addict, he said, takes “truth, plus grace, over time.”

He told those at the forum that he loves addicts. “I want to see them… please send them to me… I will do my best to try to help them to get the relationships they need so they can get off the drugs.”

For those wanting to improve their understanding of helping someone with an addiction problem, Kathy Johnson of CICS, announced that her agency puts on a “mental health first aid” training, which is an eight-hour course to help people learn more about mental health issues, including the signs and symptoms of a substance abuse disorder. It helps attendees know how to help those in crisis.

Wrapping up

Nevada High School Guidance Counselor Jeff Baker was one of those in attendance. When asked why he attended, Baker replied. “It goes without saying how important and tragic this issue is. It affects everyone and does not discriminate by race, gender, age or socioeconomic status. As a school counselor, unfortunately, I see first-hand the effects it has on children in families with substance abuse issues. Even more tragic is when the students themselves start to abuse drugs and alcohol.

“It’s very important for me to stay up-to-date with current information, trends and resources to better help my students and families,” he said.

Baker is also a father, and said he was most impacted during the forum by the slide show of the young Ames woman who died of an overdose. “As I’m watching this beautiful, vibrant and seemingly happy girl growing up in pictures, I could not help but think of my own son, who is 12. You could see all the hope and love this young lady had in her life, yet something led her to a path of substance abuse… I just pray my son never goes down that path…”

Baker said he knows there are external factors in every child’s life that can affect what path they go down. “As adults and parents, we just want our children to be safe, but we can’t shelter them forever. Eventually, they will venture into the world with all of its trials and temptations, and the best we can do is educate and prepare them for when that happens.”

Nevada City Councilman Luke Spence, who also serves on the Drug Task Force, said he was pleased with the forum’s turnout. The number of people there, he said, “tells me there is a definite need in our community for this type of information.”

He was also pleased that about a dozen people stayed after the main discussion for NARCAN training that was offered.

“Cheri DeGroot, Dr. Bollinger, Commander Huff and Sergeant Cizmadia did an excellent job presenting from the perspective of family, law enforcement and the medical field on how substance abuse can start, proliferate and take over a person’s life. There was good conversation on warning signs people can look for with their loved ones, and strategies to help get them the care they need,” Spence said. “We want to thank all those who attended, our panelists and Mayor Barker for hosting and moderating the event.”