Opioid addiction is a disease and it should be treated as such


  According to the CDC, 91 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses. The DEA reported that Cumberland and Franklin Counties had 62 cases of drug overdose deaths in 2015 — nearly half of which were caused by opioids. This made SU a logical host for Wednesday’s heroin and opioid epidemic forum.

The forum featured guests whom discussed initiatives to solve this epidemic. One solution — that is already in the works — involves compiling a database of people prescribed to opioids and ensuring that doctors do not over prescribe the medications. Another initiative involves the use of drug take-back boxes that people utilize to dispose of their unused prescription drugs. While these solutions curtail the supply of the drugs, they largely ignore where the demand comes from: the individual.

Opioid addiction is a sickness that requires treatment. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says, “The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs.” While this might cause some to say, “Don’t take drugs in the first place,” the problem is more complex than that.

According to Kenneth Martz, a psychologist and guest at Wednesday’s forum, 80 percent of heroin addicts started with prescription opioids. Martz also blamed the epidemic on pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma, the creator of OxyContin. Couple this with the fact that possession of heroin is a felony, and it is easy to see how this can of worms got opened in the first place.

When confronted with the opportunity to get help, many opioid addicts would choose this route. According to a Connecticut Public Radio article from October, addicts have been taking advantage of a Massachusetts state law that allows drug and alcohol abusers to be committed to a locked treatment facility. The article says that family members typically must force users into treatment, but makes light of a recent trend in which addicts are voluntarily admitting themselves to care in exchange for their freedom.

Another possible model to follow comes from Massachusetts as well. This time in the form of the Angel Program initiative that was pioneered in Gloucester. The program allows opioid users to turn in their drugs, and then assigns a person to help the drug users find treatment in lieu of placing them under arrest. According to the Nonprofit Quarterly, the initiative has taken in 400 individuals as of June 3, 2016. At that point, the Angel Program was in effect for one year. The success of the program has inspired other police departments to discuss the possibility of adopting similar models — even in big cities like Boston.

The point is, while it is great to curtail the supply of the drug causing this crisis, we cannot ignore the individual that is each addict. Criminalizing people for an illness has been the approach for decades, yet here we are with no end in sight.

Take the case of Mary Ann Kimberlin. PennLive reported that Kimberlin had been charged with neglecting her children while using drugs earlier this month. Last Tuesday, they reported that she had hung herself with a bed sheet. If she had a guardian angel, maybe her children would still have a mother today. 

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and are not representative of The Slate or its staff as a whole.


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