"As a student group, we call ourselves ‘Students for the Passing of the Narcotics Control Act.’ Which is a really long name” (laughs).
That’s Emily Bone. She’s originally from Illinois, and is a junior majoring in social work at Evangel University.
She tells me the story of that long-named student organization while we sit outside, on her campus on a beautiful March day.
Her story starts last fall, when Bone’ class began studying opioid abuse in Missouri.
“Even some of us, as social work students, we didn’t even know about it until we started researching the issue, just for assignments and things.”
As they learned more, she says it was startling.
"Why aren't we talking about this all the time? People are dying from this every day."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. almost quadrupled from 1999 to 2014. However, the study notes, the pain Americans reported over the span remained unchanged. But prescription opioid overdose deaths rose at about the same level.
“When someone gets hurt, say a 16 year old breaks their leg riding a skateboard, and they get their first opioid, they get that first high,” said Bone. “If they become addicted to that pill, they’re going to search for a stronger high. And that stronger high is heroin. They get that on the street. And they die so easily from it.”
As the class researched the topic further, professor and head of Evangel’s Social Work Department, Lacey Nunnally, says that students and professors began brainstorming what could be done in Missouri. And then: an opportunity.
“I wrote for a grant from the Council on Social Work Education, and received it, and it’s for policy, ‘how can you affect policy in your community,’” says Nunnally.
With the grant as a starting point, the students and professors considered what policy to support. They decided on a piece of controversial legislation: a bill that would establish a prescription drug monitoring program, or PDMP, in Missouri.
“Missouri is the only state that does not have a prescription drug monitoring program. Guam does, I think Puerto Rico does. 49 States do," says Nunnally.
State Representative Holly Rehder has been pushing for a monitoring program, but the idea has been tossed back and forth in the legislature for the past five years, mainly due to concerns about privacy.
Nunnally and the students began supporting Representative Rehder’s efforts, only to see another bill fail in the legislature. So, the team rolled up their sleeves for another attempt.
“I basically did the research on opportunities, then put it in the syllabus and they have just gone with it. But they’ve also had autonomy, such as, on what kind of town hall meeting they wanted to have,” says Nunnally.
Bone says the first town hall greatly exceeded the students’ expectations.
"Luckily the room was full,” says Bone, during a recent tour of the approximately 100 seat auditorium. “And the great part about it was, it wasn’t just full of students, we actually had community leaders show up and present things.”
Bone is grinning at the memory of the successful town hall. But as we walk outside into the warm, bright afternoon, her tone turns serious.
“I was in a car accident my sophomore year of high school, with my mom, and she was ejected from the car, it was a very tragic thing. She had a shattered knee, her wrist was shattered, and of course she needed prescription pain pills. I think there is a place for opioids in our society. So I absolutely want to preface this story that my mom needed those pills.”
Bone describes her mother as a hardworking, middle class woman. By looking at her mom, she says, you would never guess that she had once been addicted to opioids.
In fact, Bone says she did not realize the gravity of her mother’s problem until last Thanksgiving, when she made a trip home and began talking about the legislation she and her peers were advocating for.
“When I told her about the prescription drug monitoring program, she was like ‘That was me, Emily. I dealt with that.’ And I was kind of shocked. I was like, wait. What? You did?”
And that, Bone says, reveals perhaps one of the biggest hindrances to curbing drug abuse.
“No one would have assumed my mom would be dependent on prescription drugs. I think when a lot of us hear the words drug addict or we hear the word heroin, I think we automatically assume it’s some person on the streets. And it’s not that way with this drug at all. It’s the soccer mom, it’s our grandma, it’s our grandpa. And I think that’s the most important part: that it’s affecting everyone.”
A few weeks ago, Bone told her story to legislators in Jefferson City.
In all, this group of social work students as been to the state capitol four different times to support the bill, which also has a mirror bill in the Senate this year.
Bone is optimistic about the measure becoming law this time around.
But even if its passage is unsuccessful, Bone says she’s prepared to start the advocating process anew.