As a former law enforcement officer and director of the 13th Judicial Drug Task Force, El Dorado Alderman Mike Rice remembers the crestfallen look that overtook the faces of parents when he had the unfortunate task of interviewing them after their child had died of a drug overdose.
“I’ll never forget that look,” he said.
It was a look that befell his own face in May 2016 when, at 26 years old, his daughter Mary Lou succumbed to an opioid addiction that had consumed her and her family since she was 14 years old.
“I was a career law enforcement officer working in narcotics and my daughter had this issue,” he said, his voice overcome with emotion.
Rice first publicly shared the testimony about his loss during an El Dorado City Council meeting on Jan. 18.
The council decided then not to participate in efforts by the state to pursue legal action against pharmaceutical companies in the fight against the opioid abuse crisis that is ravaging Arkansas and the U.S.
Rice was one of six aldermen who voted against a request to authorize Mayor Frank Hash to sign an engagement letter outlining plans by a litigation team representing the Arkansas Municipal League and municipalities around the state to investigate and prosecute claims against companies and other parties that manufacture and/or distribute opioid medications.
He, along with several other council members, has since reversed his stance on the issue.
After hearing from a local family who is dealing with the devastation of opioid abuse, Alderman Billy Blann, who voted ‘no’ on Jan. 18, said he had experienced a change of heart and consciousness and asked that the issue be placed on the agenda for the council’s regular meeting on Feb. 8.
Following a lengthy debate and words of support by audience member Chuck Hays, the council took another vote to join with the AML and other municipalities around the state.
The result was a 5 - 3 poll in favor of the measure. Aldermen Vance Williamson, Judy Ward and Dianne Hammond voted ‘no’.
‘Very complex problem’
“I had not seen the ugly end of this. It had not affected my family,” Blann said.
Following the Jan. 18 council meeting, Blann said he had researched the matter further and had learned more about the wide-reaching effects of the problem of opioid abuse in Arkansas and across the nation.
“I was not aware of the full extent — how many pills were being prescribed, how they are affecting a lot of people… and there could be a monetary result on this and I’d hate to see El Dorado miss out on that,” Blann said.
He invited Hays to speak to the council and Hays said the issue has personally touched his family.
Hays referred to the Jan. 18 council meeting, saying that some city officials felt that opioid abuse is not an issue locally.
“We’ll have to agree to disagree,” he said. “Will a lawsuit change anything? I think it will. I think we have to get the attention of the opioid drug companies and shed a lot of light on this issue in the national press.”
He said he had also spoken with the AML about the matter and he suggested that city officials speak with the 13th Judicial Prosecuting Attorney’s Office “to see what opioids do to our court system.”
Hays also referred to a relative who works with Agape House, which serves children in Union County who can’t live in their homes due to abuse, neglect and other life issues, many of which stem from drug abuse.
Mayor Frank Hash previously said that most mayors around the state had signed the letter of engagement with the municipal league.
“This lawsuit is going to happen with or without us. It’s just a small part of the solution. There’s got to be a lot of changes made on different levels,” Hays said. “Tell us, all of us in this room, what we need to do to give you a positive vote.”
Reiterating comments he made last month, Alderman Vance Williamson said he did not favor pursuing legal action against pharmaceutical companies and distributers.
“What I don’t follow is that pharmaceutical manufacturers, at the end of the day, are not responsible for dealing out excess prescriptions,” Williamson said. “What I can’t follow is how you’re trying to hold them responsible for what physicians are doing. It’s well beyond their control.”
Hays argued that drug companies are culpable because they were not forthcoming with the public about the addictive qualities of opioid-based medications.
“I sympathize with folks who are dealing with this, but I think this suit is aimed at the wrong people,” Williamson responded.
In Arkansas, the drug prescription rate is 114 per 100 people and in Union County, the rate is 131.5 per 100 people, which is more than double the national average.
Hash pointed to comments Rice previously made, saying that many people who are addicted to prescription medications often turn to heroin, also an opioid, when they can’t access prescription medication.
Alderman Willie McGhee referred to the prescription rates that have been reported in Union County and Arkansas, saying, “If your signature saves one life, then it was worth it. I understand there’s misuse, but a lot of people who started taking these pills did so for pain. They didn’t start out as addicts.”
McGhee said that he has recently had surgeries and he was also prescribed opioid-based pain pills, adding that he opted for over-the-counter medication.
He also acknowledged that the problem has many layers and the council could “work it from the top down instead of the bottom up” by joining the efforts of the Arkansas Municipal League.
‘There is a cost’
For Rice, the issue is as emotional as it is complex.
As head of the 13th Judicial Drug Task Force, he saw firsthand the amount of resources that went into tackling illegal drug activity from a law-enforcement standpoint.
“I had a budget that included money for so many man-hours, so much equipment, so much ‘buy’ money, things you had to do to build a case. There is a cost,” he said.
In response to comments by Williamson, Rice said drug companies ship “thousands” of pills to other countries.
“And they’re shipped right back here through mail order and other means,” he said. “You can load up truckloads of pills and bring them back here. The doctors don’t make the pills.”
Rice said the drug task force worked to bust operations in which area drug dealers were rounding up addicts and arranging visits to “unscrupulous doctors” in Texas.
“They would go in and say, ‘My back hurts,’ and get all these prescriptions written and they were bringing back large quantities of narcotics to sell here,” he said.
Rice opened up about other front-line experience he has had with drug addiction.
His daughter Mary Lou was living in New Orleans at the time of her death.
Rice said he had watched her battle drug addiction for more than a decade and had tried feverishly to help her beat it.
He had seen her through stints in rehabilitation programs and sober living facilities.
“She would be clean for six, seven months to a year, but it wouldn’t last,” he said.
When his phone rang nearly two years ago and he saw the familiar “504” area code from New Orleans police, he immediately knew the news wasn’t good.
“I didn’t answer it. I said a prayer and then I hit the recall button,” he said.
A Mardi Gras parade was held Sunday in Mary Lou’s honor. It began at 2:23 p.m. (her birthday) and circled the Union County Courthouse from Jefferson Avenue to Washington Avenue and back to Rice’s restaurant, Fayray’s on Elm Street.
A Gumbo Cook-Off was held, recognizing Mary Lou’s favorite food and the event helped to benefit UCAPS.
“Mary Lou was big on rescuing dogs,” Rice shared.
While Rice said there isn’t a simple solution to the opioid problem, he said education and awareness are needed, along with other action, such as the AML effort.
He also said Union County Drug Court has had measurable success with drug addiction.
“It does not fix everybody, but it’s helped a lot of people,” Rice said.
By speaking publicly about Mary Lou and voting in favor of a Class Action lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies, Rice said he hopes he is taking the right steps toward helping others and raising awareness about the devastation of drug addiction.
“It seems like when it happens, parents want to avoid it and say, ‘It can’t happen to me,’” he said. “I hope we can figure out a way to prevent the problem. I’m a member of a very small club that I don’t want other people to become a member of and that’s losing a child.”
Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.