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Year in Review: Overdose epidemic tightens grip on Knoxville communities

The Metro Drug Coalitions' Gateway served 3,036 people since its opening in September 2022.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Just a few days away from the start of 2023, the Knox County District Attorney Office's Suspected Overdose Death chart marks 485 people who died by a potential overdose this year.

In 2021, the DA's office logged 498 overdose deaths. Up until that point, 498 was the highest number of overdose deaths the county has ever recorded. Now, Knox County could be on track to pass that.

"Those numbers are unacceptable. We're not seeing the problem get any better," said Jason Goodman with the Metro Drug Coalition.

The Metro Drug Coalition is Knoxville's resource for creating a substance-use- free community through education, prevention and their new Gateway program.

The Gateway has been open to the public since September 23, 2022. Since then, they have served 3,036 people either struggling with substance abuse themselves or needing support navigating addiction treatment for loved ones.

"We refer people to treatment, we refer people to sober living communities," Goodman said. "Folks can also come in that are looking for Naloxone, and to be trained on how to use Naloxone."

Goodman said The Gateway is in the perfect location to be able to better help people struggling with substance abuse.

"You could walk from our building, in two minutes, and purchase a bag of fentanyl, no problem," Goodman said.

The building is located just off Broadway and Fifth Avenue. They joined other service organizations like Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries, Volunteer Ministry Center, and Salvation Army.

The Gateway moved into the area amidst one of the highest suspected overdose death years on record, according to DA overdose data. They hope their presence can help curb some street drug use, and connect people to resources.

"We want to be a lot shining on a hill here in this space saying that we're here for recovery," Goodman said.

The Metro Drug Coalition connects with these people on a deeper level. Being in the recovery community, they have seen people tackle recovery successfully. They have also seen some people relapse, and die by overdose.

"Each one of those numbers is a person, a family member. There's a ripple effect. If you look at those numbers, and you add in all the people that each death touches, has a ripple effect on this community," Goodman said.

He said that the ripple effect has likely touched most people or someone they know.

"We have a tsunami wave of people who have been traumatized by those overdose deaths," Goodman said.

Goodman explained three common contributors to substance abuse disorder. These three pillars are something the MDC pays close attention to when people come through the doors for services.

Goodman said it's about nature, nurture and neighborhood.

"Nature is whether you are genetically predisposed to addictive diseases. Does it run in your family?" Goodman said. "And then we go to the nurture piece, like, what was your living environment like growing up? Do you have childhood trauma that puts you in that second category?  And then we're just looking for the third one, which is the neighborhood. What's in your neighborhood, and what's available?"

That third piece is the one The Gateway wants to hone in on. He said street drugs are becoming more accessible to people in Knoxville, and they want to prevent more people from abusing them.

"I think availability is contributing significantly to the amount of people who are dying from fentanyl overdose, for sure," Goodman said.

He fears the problem could get worse if nothing is done to stop street use of illegal drugs.

"The cartels, and the people who are manufacturing this stuff, they're always looking for a way to get better, a way to make their product stronger, more addictive, and make more money. We have a very, very severe problem right now. I just wonder what's coming next," Goodman said.

That's why he said The Gateway is in a good place. The resource has existed in downtown Knoxville for just over three months and has already assisted more than 3,000 people. Goodman hopes that number only grows in 2023.

"We expect the numbers to just grow and grow and grow," Goodman said.

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