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Maricopa County opioid deaths increase year-over-year amid gamut of factors

Maricopa County Department of Public Health reported that opioid overdose deaths have risen from 993 in 2019 to 1,434 in 2021. (File Photos/

As education, prevention grow clutch of opioids persists

By Sophie Biazus | Special to the Digital Free Press

Clinical Director Michael Dixon has helped dozens of people recover from drug abuse and believes the lure of opioids is so powerful that it can make a person beg their family for $10.

Mr. Dixon, who oversees a treatment program at Sanctuary Recovery Centers, said opioid use is spreading throughout the Phoenix area.

“From our perspective, especially over the last couple of years, it’s definitely gotten worse. We see a lot more people specifically with opioid addiction coming in,” said Mr. Dixon.

Maricopa County Department of Public Health reported that opioid overdose deaths have risen from 993 in 2019 to 1,434 in 2021.

The county received $4.7 million in aid to combat the opioid crisis “by funding evidence-based recovery and prevention programs,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates, District 3.

The cartel plays a large role in the transportation of illicit drugs coming into the country and Phoenix is the first stop, said DEA Special Agent in Charge Cheri Oz.

Addiction treatment centers are taking action but there is no set date for the disbursement of funds.

Maricopa County fights back

The $4.7 million is the first installment in an estimated $80 million payout county and local jurisdictions will receive over the next 18 years, according to a press release from the Department of Public Health. About $2.3 million out of the first installment will be distributed throughout cities and towns within the county. Phoenix will see a little over $1 million of the administered funding, officials report.

The money will be used for treatment, recovery and support for people who are affected or at risk of opioid abuse as well as the prevention of opioid dependency. The Department of Public Health will serve as the lead agency in the disbursement of funds.

Any money spent must be for an approved use per the One Arizona Agreement. This plan provides 90 cities and towns and all 15 counties with settlement money from pharmaceutical supply companies.
Jeanene Fowler, program operations administrator at the Department of Public Health, said this settlement gives the county an advantage to respond appropriately to the opioid crisis within myriad communities.

“We’re hoping to support these cities and towns by being that leader in terms of pulling the data together so that they can make data-informed decisions about their money,” she said.

Saying ‘no’ could save a life

Mr. Dixon thinks enabling behaviors — like allowing a person struggling with addiction to use at a loved one’s house so they don’t overdose — is what keep people sick.

“The most important part of [treatment] based on our experience is to see family involvement and having them set the boundaries they’re afraid to set. Education is great but knowledge without action is nothing.”

— Clinical Director Michael Dixon

Sanctuary Recovery Centers offers customized inpatient and outpatient treatment programs that use evidence-based approaches to help cope with recovering from drug addiction. Treatment focuses around medical and psychiatric services as well as mindfulness training, nutrition therapy and art/music therapy.

“Through our lens we want to give [patients] the best probability of success,” Mr. Dixon said.

Addiction is powerful as an average of 44 people died each day in 2020 from opioid-related overdoses in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, the Department of Health Services reported over 2,000 Arizonians died from opioid overdoses.

Ms. Oz believes, “Somehow we got afraid to tell people, ‘no.’”

So, what can members of the community do to help curb the number of opioid overdose deaths?

Ethan Ogden, admissions and outreach coordinator at Sanctuary Recovery Centers, said telling someone “no” can be incredibly difficult but can be effective in getting someone to change their thinking.

“The best thing we can do to decrease usage is have conversations with the people that we love… we all have to work together to make it stop,” said Ms. Oz.

Arizona is often a hotbed for drug-related arrests due to the close proximity to Sinaloa Cartel operations originating out of neighboring Mexico, law enforcement officials report. (File Photos/

The Arizona opioid pipeline

The Sinaloa Cartel is the main source of drug trafficking as they own the trafficking routes in Mexico that go into the city, according to Ms. Oz.

“The cartel is manufacturing and bringing the dope here. We’re getting it first because of our proximity to Mexico, to the headquarters, to the base of the Sinaloa Cartel. If we were further north, it would be different. But it just stops here first. The cartel is the problem,” she said. “Society needs to know that this is violent. This is dangerous. This is deadly and the people who are the predators will be held accountable. They will be taken to justice.”

A big win for the DEA was taking down infamous cartel leader Rafael Caro-Quintero. He was taken into custody by Mexican authorities and will be extradited to the U.S.

After Caro-Quintero was released from a Mexican prison in 2013, he was on the FBI’s list of 10 most wanted fugitives for allegedly killing DEA agent Kiki Camarena and trafficking illicit drugs.

Don’t Wait Before It’s Too Late

If you or a loved one is struggling with an opioid addiction visit the Opioid Assistance and Referral Line website or call the free, confidential hotline at 1-888-688-4222.

Editor’s note: Ms. Biazus is a journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.

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