By Dane O’Leary
The term “opioid” refers to a substance that acts on the opioid receptors in the brain, producing morphine-like effects. The opioid class includes opiates — drugs that come directly from opium, including morphine and codeine — as well as numerous synthetic and semisynthetic drugs such as oxycodone, fentanyl and even naloxone.1 Simply put, the opioid class consists of heroin and prescription painkillers. Unfortunately, opioids are a topic of daily conversation for most due to the opioid epidemic, caused by underestimation of the addictive potential of these drugs as well as insufficient regulation and careless overprescribing.
Over the course of 2016, there were more than 50,000 deaths caused by drug overdose in the U.S. Of those deaths, approximately 23 percent were from heroin and 80 percent were from opioids overall.2 These rather dismaying estimates are the result of continuous increase in opioid abuse and dependence, a primary concern of citizens and public officials alike. Some even use the expression “War on Drugs” to refer to the high priority with which the federal government, healthcare providers, treatment professionals, law enforcement, and activists have been devising plans of action in hope of loosening the stronghold opioids have over countless individuals.
When it comes to our fight against opioid addiction, where exactly do we stand? Let’s take a moment to check the status of this ongoing war.
The Trump Administration Declares War on Opioids
Although there’s undoubtedly still a stigma attached to addiction, particularly opioid addiction, more people are recognizing addiction as a brain disease. As a result, there’s been more empathy and, notably, a push for addiction treatment, which has meant an increase in federal and state funding for addiction treatment in recent years. However, while the Obama Administration made great progress in ensuring that more people in need had access to affordable recovery resources,3 the Trump Administration seems to be taking a different approach.
Rather than focusing on the treatment of addiction like his predecessor, President Trump’s approach thus far has been to decrease the rate at which people are developing substance abuse problems by ebbing the flow of illicit drugs into the U.S. Helping to achieve that goal, Trump intends to build a wall along the United States-Mexico border. According to statements President Trump has made, the wall will prevent drug cartels from smuggling narcotics across the border.4 Meanwhile, Trump has been putting together a task force to address the opioid crisis and recently announced the five individuals who would comprise the task force. During his official statement, President Trump announced that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would be appointed Chair of the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, former Rhode Island Governor Patrick Kennedy and psychobiology professor at Harvard Medical School Dr. Bertha Madras round out the group.5 The responsibilities of the task force are to locate federal funding to be used to address the opioid crisis and to help identify and write up necessary changes to the criminal justice system.
Other members of the Trump Administration are adopting a similar outlook, too. In particular, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rolling back the Smart on Crime Initiative, which discouraged prosecutors from filing criminal charges when there’s little or no federal interest.6 On paper, the Smart on Crime Initiative was meant to encourage alternative solutions for drug-related criminal cases so that the court system could concentrate on more serious and pressing crimes; however, Sessions hopes that criminal prosecution will deter drug-related activity in the absence of the Smart on Crime Initiative.
Law Enforcement Advocate for Treatment
Historically, the interactions law enforcement officials had with individuals suffering from addiction were usually instigated by criminal behaviors of some kind. Since being addicted to opioids or other substances doesn’t make a person exempt from the consequences of criminal behavior, the result was a large number of inmates who were in need of recovery resources that aren’t often available in prisons. However, with drug courts becoming a preferred way of addressing addiction among criminal offenders, law enforcement officials have found themselves with the opportunity to take on a new role, which is exactly what officers at the Gloucester Police Department in Massachusetts have done with the Angel Program.
In short, the Angel Program is a treatment referral and placement initiative led by Gloucester law enforcement for members of the community who are suffering from addiction. According to reports, the inspiration for the program was the alarming rate with which overdose deaths have been increasing year over year, both in Massachusetts as well as throughout the United States. Wanting to find new ways of helping those in need, officers at the Gloucester Police Department devised the Angel Program, a voluntary, no-arrest pilot program providing treatment placement services. Over the first year it was offered — from June 2015 to May 2016 — a total of 376 people visited the police station for assistance 429 times, making the program a huge success and garnering nationwide attention.7
While initiatives like the Angel Program are still relatively uncommon, many are hoping that the program’s resounding success will inspire similar programs in other areas that have been troubled by opioid addiction.
Americans Take Action in Their Communities
Activism isn’t limited to public officials and law enforcement. Across the nation, Americans are becoming more proactive about the opioid crisis by taking matters into their own hands. Even when there’s limited resource availability, these activists agree they can no longer sit idly by as the epidemic continues to be a leading cause of preventable death.
In southern Indiana, members of a community have been working together to provide support to individuals in need of treatment and in the process of recovery. While the peer-run initiative called Our Place has been around for a number of years, anti-opioid conversation has spread throughout neighboring communities, helping the grassroots initiative to gain traction and making Our Place a life-saving resource for individuals in need.8 With Indiana ranking 49th out of 50 states for public funding, a main focus of the group has been helping individuals find ways to pay for treatment and helping them get back on their feet after treatment.
The addiction stigma continues to be one of the most significant obstacles to recovery that individuals suffering from addiction face. In Rochester, New York, volunteers and self-proclaimed activists have begun working with the national nonprofit Facing Addiction, hoping to strengthen the community’s resources and help change public opinion on addiction and recovery. According to Carlee Holsizer — a former addict who filed the paperwork to bring Rochester to the attention of Facing Addiction — those who suffer from addiction need support, to feel comfortable, and for society to be on their side rather than against them.9Working with Rochester officials, law enforcement, volunteers, and Facing Addiction, Holsizer’s hope is to establish a community that welcomes and celebrates addiction by creating programs for treatment placement and other community resources that will reinforce newfound sobriety.
Beyond Our Place in Indiana and the grassroots operation in Rochester, there are many other initiatives across the United States and there will surely be more in the future. Recognizing these activists is important because it’s not just legislators and law enforcement who are on the frontlines of the fight against opioid addiction. More and more people are pledging themselves to the cause, no matter how big or small a contribution they can make.