- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 3, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Gov. Bill Haslam and Commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Douglas Varney on Tuesday unveiled a multi-year plan to fight prescription drug abuse in Tennessee.

The state estimates that in the past year, nearly 221,000 Tennesseans have used prescription pain relievers for non-medical purposes, and that 69,000 of them are addicted to the drugs.

“It’s a serious problem in Tennessee when one out of every 20 adults has used prescription drugs that weren’t prescribed to them for medical reason,” Haslam said. “This prescription drug abuse has overtaken alcohol as the drug we’re addressing most frequently.”

Strategies include increasing access to drug disposal outlet and drug courts; adding resources for early intervention, treatment and recovery services; and decreasing the amount of controlled substances dispensed.

Twelve of the plan’s 33 recommendations would involve increased state funding, but the governor was unwilling to say how much money he will seek to pour into the effort.

“We don’t have that dollar amount yet,” he said. “But what you’re hearing out of us is a focus on treatment.”

Haslam had included $1.7 million in his original budget proposal to pay to house 100 women and 50 men in an intense residential drug court treatment program that would be located in Nashville. But that money ended up being cut out of the spending plan because of flagging state revenues.

The prescription drug plan comes on the heels of a Haslam administration initiative to set tighter limits on cold and allergy medicines used to make meth. Under the legislation, a doctor’s prescription will be needed buy more than five months’ worth of the maximum dose of medicines like Sudafed containing pseudoephedrine.

Varney’s department worked with several other state agencies to come up with the plan treat addiction in the state.

“We’ve really got several initiatives that have already started and are making an impact,” Varney said. “We’re not looking for one big ask at one time, but really want to build things that have a strong proven track record, where again you get a big bang for the buck.”

“Many of these things we’ve been working on for some time,” he said.

Nashville Criminal Judge Seth Norman recalled that when he first took the bench more than 20 years ago, the prevailing view on dealing with drug and alcohol offenders was to “lock them up until you draw them out.”

“It obviously did not work,” he said.

Norman said treatment provides the best chance to break the addiction cycle.

“Our statistics show us that for every person we put through the residential treatment program, we save the state $38,000,” he said. “It’s like the old General Motors commercial: You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

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