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The Opioid Crisis: A Maritime Perspective

Coast Guard personnel are accustomed to viewing drug abuse as law enforcement professionals, looking into criminal activity from the outside. But as the statistics of America’s worsening opioid crisis indicate, increasingly fewer Americans can claim not to have been affected by it. More than 11 million people abused prescription opioids in 2016, and every day more than 1,000 Americans are treated in emergency departments for misusing them. More than 46 people die every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in 2016 that prescriptions for naloxone (NARCAN®), the rapid-response drug designed to reverse opioid overdose, had increased more than tenfold between 2013 and 2015.

It’s a public health crisis that affects millions of Americans, including those in the Coast Guard and the maritime industries they serve. Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation updated its drug-testing program to include analysis for four semi-synthetic opioids and to be administered to federal employees involved in transportation safety, including Coast Guard personnel. This summer, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported that the construction and fishing industries – trades more likely than others to involve physical pain or injuries treated with prescription painkillers – accounted for the state’s highest opioid death rates. U.S. fishing fleets in general have suffered greatly in the opioid crisis.

“A lot of our operators come into contact with illicit drugs in the field – mainly cocaine – while performing maritime drug interdictions and transfers,” said Windt. “But we see the opioid epidemic taking hold in the fishing fleets, in places like the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. We wanted to get ahead of the curve and take action as a preventive measure, and not as a reactionary measure – for the safety of our own service members during the course of operations and in a search and rescue capacity. We interact with the public on a daily basis, and it’s our job to keep them safe.”

Last summer, the Coast Guard launched efforts aimed at protecting both their service members and members of the public from the dangers of opioid misuse. First, the service revised its policy guidelines for handling drugs encountered during the course of Coast Guard operations, to include synthetic opioids such as fentanyl or fentanyl analogues.

More conspicuously, the Coast Guard expanded the distribution of, and training in the use of, naloxone among its field units. While the injectable form of NARCAN has long been available to large Coast Guard units such as cutter crews, who routinely work in isolation away from medical facilities, the program launched in August 2017 authorizes and provides funding for the more easily administered nasal mist to be distributed among units throughout the Coast Guard.

Lt. Cmdr. Paul Windt, who works in the Coast Guard’s Office of Law Enforcement Policy in Washington, D.C., and oversees the service’s counterdrug policy and strategy, said the new training program is in alignment with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Health Affairs, which teaches participants how to recognize the signs of impairment or suspected overdose and how to administer naloxone.

“A lot of our operators come into contact with illicit drugs in the field – mainly cocaine – while performing maritime drug interdictions and transfers,” said Windt. “But we see the opioid epidemic taking hold in the fishing fleets, in places like the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. We wanted to get ahead of the curve and take action as a preventive measure, and not as a reactionary measure – for the safety of our own service members during the course of operations and in a search and rescue capacity. We interact with the public on a daily basis, and it’s our job to keep them safe.”

By

Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...


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