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This 2013 file photo shows hydrocodone-acetaminophen pills, also known as Vicodin, arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. 

The Associated Press

There's a little bit of good news to report in our struggle against opioid abuse and addiction, but a couple of recent news items make it clear that we have a long way to go before we've gained the upper hand against this scourge.

First, though, the good news: Kaiser Health News, in a story picked up recently by Oregon's Lund Report, noted that drug overdose deaths might have reached some sort of plateau in the Western states. 

In fact, Kaiser reported as it analyzed data from May 2015 through May 2017, deaths in Oregon from opiate, cocaine and methamphetamine abuse declined by about 3 percent. 

That was in line with similar trends from other Western states such as California and Utah.

That's a welcome development, but it's much too early to break out the sparkling apple cider for a celebration: For starters, the plateau in the West could merely reflect the fact that the potent synthetic opiate fentanyl has not yet saturated the market in this part of the country.

And there's the larger picture to keep in mind as well: Nationally, the number of drug overdose deaths continues to soar. Kaiser reported that the number of overdose deaths nationally increased by 35 percent over that two-year period. 

In that grim tally, Pennsylvania and Florida are leading the way: Overdose deaths rose 83 percent in Pennsylvania and 85 percent in Florida.

Those numbers are staggering — and experts say the increasing prevalence of fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, is one of the big reasons for that spike.

If it's true that fentanyl still is working its way west, it's possible that the plateau in overdose deaths out here could be just the calm before yet another terrible storm. Some evidence suggests that could be the case: A recent story in The Oregonian reported that the number of fentanyl deaths in Oregon last year rose to 58, an all-time high. The number of reported fentanyl deaths in the state two years ago?

One. 

To that end, it was alarming to notice a couple of recent news items:

First, the Oregon State Police this week announced a change in policies regarding how officers test suspected narcotics during traffic stops. During the field test, officers use a kit to scoop small amounts of a suspected drug into a plastic packet. They then add a chemical that turns colors depending on the substance being tested.

But the increased potency of fentanyl puts officers at increased risk during those field tests. In a recent case in Ohio, for example, an officer was treated for an overdose after powder landed on his uniform. The new State Police policy potentially puts a crimp in drug prosecutions, but the safety of the officers has to be a higher priority. The policy change likely means a heavier caseload for the State Police crime lab.

And if you're looking for additional evidence of the risks posed by drug addiction, consider this news item: Linn County Sheriff Bruce Riley got the OK this week to spend $150,000 over the next seven years on equipment that will detect illicit drugs on mail entering the county jail.

Riley said it's not unusual for someone to try to smuggle drugs into the jail via these letters: The drugs might be concealed under a stamp, for example, or in the adhesive of an envelope.

In some heartbreaking cases, Riley said, the drugs might be found in the crayon wax used in drawings that supposedly come from children. The sheriff said the jail no longer allows those drawings. 

We have two reactions to Riley's remarks: First, here's hoping that actual children aren't creating those drawings and putting their health at serious risk. Second, if you need any additional evidence about the seriousness of this nation's drug-abuse problem, there it is, in living color.

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