With the addictive opioid fentanyl available in many potent variations, one Tennessee legislator who is also an anesthesiologist is calling the substance the equivalent of “chemical warfare.”

State Rep. Dr. Bryan Terry, one of the panelists, made the comment at the Rutherford County Opioid and Mental Health Town Hall last Tuesday. State Rep. Mike Sparks hosted the town hall at Parkway Baptist Church in Smyrna.

Sparks shared how the son of a family friend recently overdosed recently.

“We’re really in a war right now,” Sparks said.

Musical entertainment was provided by J.T. Cooper, an Army veteran who writes music to raise awareness about issues affecting veterans, such as suicide and finding new purpose in life through service.

Terry, chairman of the House Health Committee, spoke of the dangers of overexposing patients to opioid addiction as well as the danger of undertreating chronic pain patients — namely, that they may buy drugs through the black market.

Heroin is five times stronger than morphine, Terry said, and fentanyl, a hospital-dispensed opioid, is 100 times stronger than morphine. Sufentanil is 1,000 times stronger, while Carfentanil is 10,000 times stronger than morphine, he said.

In 2018, Carfentanil was found to be used illegally in at least seven counties in Tennessee, Terry said, while fentanyl was found in most counties.

“When you can traffic upwards of 32 million lethal doses of a drug … as Representative Sparks said, that’s a war. That’s chemical warfare.”

Sparks made another analogy to warfare: Nearly a quarter-million Americans have died in the past two decades from overdosing on opioids, which is four times the U.S. casualties from the Vietnam War. His statistics came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medicated in jail

One panelist, Egon Grissom, deputy chief of Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, shared how mental health affects the Adult Detention Center. Fifty-three percent of 900-plus inmates take medicine to treat mental health issues. Among the male inmates, 47 percent take such medicine, and a whopping 90 percent of female inmates do so.

“Every single one” has one or more issues (alcohol, mental health or drugs), Grissom said, and he said more support programs are needed.

Panelist Steve Ervin, a county commissioner and director of the Rutherford County Drug Court, said demand for his services is growing, especially for Recovery Court, and they are hiring another case manager.

Another panelist, Barry Tidwell, a Rutherford County judge who runs a mental health court, said that since launching it in 2017, he has learned some lessons. One is that a “successful” defendant may not be someone who is never arrested anymore, but instead is one who is arrested less often. The number of days a person stays sober is another measure of success.

School concerns

Bill Spurlock and Dr. Linda Gilbert, superintendents of Rutherford County and Murfreesboro City Schools, attended the town hall as observers. Sparks pointed out how Spurlock has advocated for increasing the number of school nurses. Various participants mentioned the severe lack of resources to provide mental health services to children, and said even elementary school students are needing help.

County Commissioner Craig Harris, a panelist, spoke about a curriculum he helped law enforcement and others develop for county schools on addiction; it will be introduced in schools in the next academic year.

“I want them to explain to you the battles that you’re going to have to go through when you become addicted,” Harris said. “It’s not the flu — it’s forever.”

Sparks said he wants to sponsor a larger opioid and mental health conference in May at New Vision Baptist Church with Gov. Bill Lee. Anyone interested in participating should contact Sparks at (615) 741-6829 or mike.sparks@capitol.tn.gov.


For help with treatment of addiction issues, call or text the Tennessee Redline at 800-889-9789. The free help line is confidential and open every day for 24 hours a day. Go to taadas.org for information.

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