Researcher gives insights and perspective into Utah substance abuse

Brendon Quinn drug trends lecture - Drug death chart
Researcher gives insights and perspective into Utah substance abuse


Robert Stevens

Managing editor



EPHRAIM—Australian substance abuse researcher Dr. Brendan Quinn came to talk at Snow College about new perspectives and insight on substance abuse in the U.S. and Utah.

Quinn, an epidemiologist, grew up in Melbourne and his main focus of study is drug use trends (in particular methamphetamine), harm reduction and public health concerns.

“I feel very passionately about developing evidenced based practice and policy across all of these issues,” Quinn said. “Sometimes that is hard to do because I work in what many consider a controversial field. You know, drugs and sex. Often the measures we propose to politicians to deal with some of these issues are not politically palatable.”

Quinn gave an example of how politics play into public health issues. He said they saw a lot of examples of deaths in Australia because of bad batches of ecstasy pills.

“We have encouraged establishing pill testing procedures, but it’s just not something law enforcement is enthusiastic about doing there,” Quinn said. “I am certainly not advocating drug use,  but I am by no means demonizing those who do actively use drugs. I think that’s stigmatizing and I think it can be really damaging.”

Quinn told the audience a story about his grandmother. At a family gathering years ago, his grandmother told him how she thought drug users are nothing but a drain on society and should all be incarcerated.

“It was very frustrating for me that she lacked the willingness to learn about other people’s experiences or perspectives,” Quinn said. “She was perfectly comfortable living in her own little bubble where she could criticize others and judge them from afar.

Quinn says, during his studies, he has discovered people who use drugs are incredibly diverse.

“Some are bad, but you will find bad people in any population,”  he said. “However, some are incredibly good and deserve a second or third or fourth or fifth chance to try and make a life for themselves. Some of those that do will end up contributing more to society than the rest of us.”

Quinn says science and the findings of its practitioners should dictate harm reduction policies

“Like other fields, there are people who have been studying drugs and alcohol for decades,” Quinn said. “We need to listen to the intelligent people, the experts who care and who know how to change the world in a positive way.”

“Why do I do this,” Quinn asked the audience? “Because I want to reduce the potential harm that can come from these lifestyles.”

Quinn said the drug death rates are rising in all 50 states.

“This is a huge public health problem,” he said. “Drugs now kill more people than cars and guns.”

Quinn says about two-thirds of overdoses involve opioids, both licit and illicit.

“Heroin is obviously an illegal drug, but if you misuse pharmaceuticals that counts as illicit use too,” he said.

Utah’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health has declared the rising use of substance abuse across the state a public health emergency. According to Quinn, in the last decade, opioid overdose deaths in Utah increased by more than 400 percent, and Utah currently has the fourth highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation.

Quinn says there are some positive harm reduction programs that have been instituted to help the problem.

Needle exchange programs have been made legal in Utah as of 2016, reducing the chances of blood-borne viruses being transmitted through the sharing of syringes. Quinn says harm reduction programs like this have been in use in Australia for years and have helped save billions of dollars and countless lives.

Naloxone, a drug meant to help pull people out of an opioid overdose, is being made more publicly available and easier to administrate by someone who has not been medically trained.

“It’s  terrific,” Quinn said. “It’s a life-saving antidote to opioid overdose. In the past, it was mainly used in hospitals, but in 2016 pharmacies were allowed to dispense Naloxone to anyone with a desire to have it for harm-reduction. So if you have friends or family or anyone else in your life who might be at risk for an opioid overdose, you can get Naloxone from the pharmacy and have a chance of saving their life if that scenario ever happened.”

Quinn says there are a lot of treatment options for those with substance abuse problems in Utah.  Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, rehabs, one-on-one counseling and other options are available, but he says it’s important to remember “there is no silver bullet here, but some can help, even if they don’t always work for everyone.”

In closing, Quinn said he wanted to emphasize that “drugs are not universally bad” and there is a lot of controlled studies and trials finding medical uses for drugs previously thought to have no legitimate usage. He says he is optimistic about some of the benefits people may stand to gain from those trials, when they are done properly.

“I want to encourage critical, constructive thinking around trends, relevant media and political coverage, ‘appropriately’ addressing problematic drug use,” Quinn said. “You never know what someone’s backstory is. Someone might have been brought up around drugs—not their fault—or someone could be a college-educated person who hurt themselves and now use morphine to dull the pain they live with daily. It’s important to listen to the facts. Significant numbers of people across all age groups have a substance use disorder, so there is still a lot of work to do.”