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Drug overdoses kill more people than car crashes in Oregon, Washington

Drug overdoses now kill more people than car crashes in Oregon, Washington and 34 other states, according to a report from Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

And researchers say that has a lot to do with a rise in the abuse of opioids, a type of drug that includes painkillers like OxyContin, hydrocodone and heroin.

Oregon ranks fourth worst in the country for abuse and misuse of prescription opioids. Washington ranks 12th, tied with Alaska and New Mexico.

"What's it like to do heroin?"

"Addiction really takes people hostage," Buster Ross, 30, told KATU.

He said he started using opioids early.

"My first knowledge that it was wonderful, if you will, was in a medical setting," said Ross.

As a teenager a doctor gave him intravenous morphine to treat a throat infection.

Ross said he didn't get hooked then, but a few years later he started taking OxyContin.

"It wasn't that it was out of control for a while, (there were) a few years that it was intermittent," said Ross. "There was some point that it become really regular that I was using it all the time."

When it became too tough to get prescription pills, Ross switched to heroin.

It's a common story.

Researcher say four in five new heroin users start out misusing prescription painkillers.

"You begin to experience the state of withdrawal," said Ross, "and the state of the hangover that pulls you out where, you know, anesthetizing you becomes the highest priority."

Ross said within a few weeks the drug took over his life.

"What's it like to do heroin?" a KATU reporter asked Ross.

"Well, it's like a few things," he said. "The first moments of it are really blissful and it's like this state of ecstatic wonder and warmth and pleasure and joy that's followed quickly by passing out and then waking up to horror and terrible circumstances and death and carnage around you."

That carnage included the death of his best friend, Tyler, three days before Ross's 21st birthday.

"I went to his funeral," Ross said. "I stood over his grave with his mother as she sang him a lullaby, and I said the last words at his gravesite and I saw how I largely contributed to my best friend's death."

After that, Ross got clean, but about a year later he relapsed.

"I can remember walking down the street having this thought: 'I'm either gonna kill myself or I'm gonna shoot heroin today but there's not another option,'" said Ross. "So I started shooting heroin and within a week I was over the body of my fiancée, she's turning blue and having a heroin overdose."

His fiancée survived but their relationship did not, and Ross said his family helped him get the treatment he desperately needed.

"It's really important to know," Ross said, "that no matter where someone is at that hope is like actually really possible."

Now Ross is seven-and-a-half-years sober and a renowned addiction specialist, treating patients at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation treatment centers and advising the White House on addiction issues.

"It's not about making it so doctors don't prescribe opioids and it's not about just providing treatment," said Ross. "It's about managing what's going on with doctors, it's about improving access to treatment. It's about reducing the people being sent to prison who actually need treatment. It's about improving education and advocacy. We have to approach from all these points."

Ross said you need to act quickly if you know an addict is looking for help.

"I think you don't need to bother trying to get people into treatment when there's no motivation," Ross said. "But when there is motivation at all and willingness, you have to help people get access."

And Ross said he's frustrated because although he's able to help people get treatment at his facility or others, it doesn't always happen.

"What is so awful is that when people are ready we can't get them into services," said Ross. "By the time that people are ready and that family is willing to help or friends and community are willing to help we have to find them a bed, we have to find them outpatient services and we don't have access or if we have access their insurance company doesn't want to pay for this level of care but they'll pay for that. You only have a small window to actually get somebody because what happens is the pain and suffering of that initial period goes by in a few days and then people find other ways to justify continuing to use."

In its most recent report on the topic published in 2014, the Oregon Health Authority said 2.7 percent of Oregonians reported, "They had an unmet need for treatment for illicit drug use ... There are no data on the unmet need for treatment for prescription drug abuse and dependency."

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act aimed at preventing drug abuse, treating addiction and reducing overdose death.

But many Democrats, and Ross, criticize the measure because they say it doesn't provide enough immediate funding.

Meanwhile, Oregon has been awarded $2.67 million to combat the opioid epidemic.

On Friday, the federal government announced the funds will be going to eight health centers, including OHSU and Multnomah County.

Washington is getting $2.8 million.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is making a $94 million investment to expand substance abuse services.

The agency says centers across the nation will be able to hire 800 providers to treat 124,000 new patients.

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