FAU researchers, law enforcement collaborate to tackle opioid crisis

The deadliest drug crisis in American history won’t be solved by just researchers, law enforcement or recovery treatment providers.

But put them all in the same room to brainstorm, as Florida Atlantic University did Wednesday, and the result is steps toward a multi-pronged approach to tackle addiction.

State Attorney Dave Aronberg, university researchers who focus on addiction and treatment providers gathered at the Boca Raton university to discuss curbing addiction. The discussion was organized by the university’s Addiction Research Collaborative, a collective of researchers who produce studies on addiction and recovery.

“We think our research will have an impact on what’s happening here in the community,” said Karin Scarpinato, associate vice president of the Division of Research.

There are about 14 opioid-related deaths in Florida every day, Aronberg said.

“If there were 14 manatees washing up on our shores every day, there would be an outcry, and rightly so,” Aronberg said. “But 14 people a day doesn’t seem to shock the conscience I think because there’s still some biases among policy-makers that this is a choice … We know here it’s a brain disease.”

The speakers at Wednesday’s event, which drew about 40 people, emphasized the need to collaborate to combat the opioid crisis. Research from credible sources, like universities, is needed to create policy. Law enforcement needs policy to reign in the seemingly unregulated recovery industry. Recovery is needed to combat addition.

“We always have a lot of people doing good things in their own little world. There’s not coordination,” said Al Johnson, chief assistant state attorney. “So you may have people who have half a solution, or a quarter of a solution, that never hear about the other percent.”

Aronberg and Johnson are tackling the opioid crisis through regulation. The Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force, headed by the pair, has arrested 42 sober home and drug treatment operators on charges of insurance fraud and patient brokering since October 2016.

Meanwhile, professors with FAU’s Addiction Research Collaborative, like College of Medicine Professor Janet Robishaw, have launched groundbreaking research into opioid addiction.

Robishaw landed a five-year, $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to “identify the genetic signature that creates vulnerability for developing addiction.”

In essence, genetic testing can tell doctors if patients are predisposed to addiction. Doctors can then craft non-opioid treatments for chronic pain patients who are likely to develop addiction.

Larry Toll, another professor with the College of Medicine, has studied addiction for 35 years. He is researching non-addictive pain management alternatives to opioids.

Andrew Burki, who runs a Life of Purpose treatment center for students on FAU’s campus, suggested building collegiate recovery services into the higher education model, so tuition could cover treatment services needed by students.

He also suggested economic incentives for long-term treatment. Unethical treatment operators capitalize on the short-term stays of patients, who are often cycled through the system.

“As a treatment provider, I make the cognitive decision to make less money” so patients more effectively recover, Burki said.

The event was the first in a series that the Addiction Recovery Collective will hold at FAU.

“We’re in a geographically ideal location for this,” Burki said. “This is a South Florida problem.”

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