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DIGGING DEEPER: Battling an overwhelming number of drug overdoses in Pima County

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TUCSON - Drug overdoses are a huge issue that is being addressed by first-responders and medical personnel.

In 2019, the projected number of deaths due to drug overdoses is 324. That’s nearly a death every day of the year.

According to the Pima County Health Department, who has been keeping track of the statistics, the number of overdose deaths has been steadily climbing since 2015 when the number stood at 262. 

“The illicit drugs, prescription drugs, there's definitely been a major increase,” said Mark Person, program manager for the department. 

News 4 Tucson obtained a copy of body-worn camera video from the Counter Narcotics Alliance. 

The video was from 2018 when the numbers showed there were 286 overdose deaths that year.

In the video, you see Tucson Police officers answering overdose calls and quickly administering Narcan - a drug that reverses opioid overdoses.

From the minute someone overdoses and stops breathing, you have four minutes to administer Narcan.

“People who suffer from substance abuse need treatment," said Tucson Police Captain John Leavitt, who heads the Counter Narcotics Alliance. "We have no interest in putting them in jail. We have every interest in making sure they get treatment."

In 2019, Tucson Police Department reported they saved 51 lives and Pima County Sheriff’s deputies saved 21.

The news is not all bad.

According to the health department, prescription drug overdoses are actually down.

“The state of Arizona has implemented a lot of strict regulations on the prescription opioids that were a major problem for the last ten years.  They've done a nice job of that it has decreased the availability of those,” Person told News 4 Tucson.

So now, people addicted to prescription drugs are buying illicit drugs off the streets to get their fix. Those overdose deaths are increasing.

“It's the widespread use and availability of things like methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl,” Person told the Digging Deeper Team. “If they [law enforcement] didn't have it you'd have even more people dying from overdoses.”  

Officials at the health department told News 4 Tucson, the addiction problem needs to be dealt with by addressing the supply, the demand and getting treatment for those who are addicted.

Author Profile Photo

Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

Paul Birmingham

Paul Birmingham is an Investigative Producer for KVOA News 4 Tucson. He is a three time Edward R. Murrow award winner, native Tucsonan, and a proud Arizona Wildcat.

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