Last week, six UNM Health Sciences Center faculty and students were recognized by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for their efforts to address the statewide opioid epidemic.

The Heroin and Opioid Prevention Education Initiative is a collaboration between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the UNM Health Sciences Center. Since its start in Jan. 2015, the initiative aims to protect state communities from the dangers of heroin and opioid painkillers while reducing the number of drug-related deaths.

“The HOPE Initiative was formed between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Health Sciences Center to increase awareness and accessibility to resources for all the stakeholders in the opioid issue,” said Dr. Richard Larson, the Executive Vice Chancellor for UNM HSC.

This kind of collaboration and initiative is unique to New Mexico.

“We really represent the first experiment in this model,” Larson said.

The awardees were recognized for their exceptional work to realize the HOPE Initiative's goal.

UNM Pain Clinic Director Joanna Katzman was recognized for her critical role in enacting the first-of-its kind legislation that made a life-saving, overdose-reversing drug, Naloxone, widely available.

Snehal R. Bhatt, medical director of Addictions and Substance Abuse Programs at the UNM Psychiatric Center, was recognized for his efforts to improve access to addiction treatment across the state.

Three members of the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator — Chief Medical Investigator Kurt Nolte, Medical Investigator Hannah Kastenbaum, and Forensic Pathologist Karen Cline-Parhamovich — were also recognized for their outstanding work on the initiative.

Brittany Haggard, a PharmD candidate at the UNM College of Pharmacy, is the 2016 chair of the Generation Rx student pharmacist organization and was recognized for helping expand the HOPE Initiative's community outreach efforts.

Though the initiative's goals are ambitious, Larson said there have been clear results.

More than 70 lives were saved last year thanks to the Initiative’s efforts, he said, emphasising that efforts to reduce the usage of opioids have been critical.

In New Mexico, nearly 6,000 pounds of prescription drugs were “taken back,” on National Drug Take Back Day, a day when prescription medication can be safely disposed. UNM participated in the event by hosting a drop-off spot on North Campus.

Effective ways to prevent dangerous opioid use are as important as treatment, Larson said.

“We have to address it from both sides,” he said. “On one side is the prevention. The other side is the treatment.”

“(Addiction) has to be treated as a disease,” Larson said. “That way, the medical community and law enforcement can appropriately address it.”

Because the opioid epidemic’s burden is high in New Mexico, the HOPE Initiative has taken steps to redouble its efforts to address the issue.

A newly outlined strategic plan, which outlines three-to-five-year goals, prioritizes increases in training and access of medications like Naloxone to expand the prevention and treatment of opioid overdose.

Brendon Gray is a news reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at or on Twitter @notgraybrendon.