Judges Point to the Dramatic Rise in Overdoses and Overdose Deaths
Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Lila Statom, who helped establish and still presides over Hamilton County’s misdemeanor Mental Health Court, and who also presides as substitute judge over Hamilton County’s misdemeanor Drug Recovery Court, is renewing her call for expanded treatment options for those in our community, including in our criminal justice system, pointing to the dramatic rise in overdoses and overdose deaths in Tennessee.
Citing data from the Tennessee Department of Health, overdose deaths from illicit drugs have almost doubled since 2016. Officials project the loss of life to drug overdoses in 2021 will rank as the worst yet, in what is proving to be one of the worst and most overlooked results of the pandemic.
“Addiction is not simply an illness to overcome. It destroys an individual’s future; it destroys their family; it takes their lives if left untreated,” commented Judge Lila Statom, who currently leads all county judges across the state as president of the Tennessee General Sessions Court Conference. “Too many self-medicate in their mental health struggles and end up in the justice system, or struggle with substance use disorder and never receive the treatment they desperately need.”
The most recent data available from the Tennessee Department of Health records 3,032 overdose deaths in 2020, representing a 45% increase from 2019, and almost doubling from the 1,631 recorded in 2016. In Hamilton County, the number of deaths recorded due to overdose was 139 with 94 involving fentanyl and 63 involving methamphetamines or cocaine.
“Without the resources to address addiction and mental health issues through treatment and therapy, individuals are arrested and incarcerated without hope for recovery or change,” observed General Sessions Judge Alex McVeagh, who established and oversees Hamilton County’s misdemeanor Drug Recovery Court and who is currently working with Judge Statom and others to increase participation in Hamilton County’s treatment courts. “Hamilton County’s recovery courts work together to keep our community safe while effectively addressing non-violent offenders, knowing that over 98 percent of these individuals will return to our community when released from custody.”
Hamilton County is recorded to have the fourth most deaths attributed to overdose behind Shelby, Davidson and Knox Counties. Hamilton County ranks fourth for deaths involving methamphetamines or cocaine and fifth for deaths involving fentanyl. The sharpest increases in overdose deaths have been recorded in the age group of 34-44 year-olds followed by the 25-34 year-olds. Opioids continue to play the leading contributing role, involved in 79 percent of these overdose deaths, with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid used to treat severe pain with 100 times the potency of morphine.
Fentanyl from drug cartel activity and illicit sale outside the healthcare environment is most often the source with inconsistent formulations that yield deadly results. A lethal dose of fentanyl is as small as two milligrams. According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, of pills tested, just under 50 percent contained an excessive dose of fentanyl that would be lethal.
“The crisis of humanity that we are seeing cannot be ignored,” Judge Statom said. “We need to keep our community safe while providing drug and mental health treatment to non-violent offenders.”
For more information regarding Mental Health Court or Drug Recovery Court, contact the Hamilton County Mental Health Court offices at (423) 209-6195.