Connection – not prison – is the solution to the opioid epidemic

By Sara Veltkamp, Account Manager, Minerva Strategies—

Death from drug overdose is a major problem in our country and around the world. According to the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 55,403 lethal drug overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction – to both pain killers and heroin – accounts for 58 percent of these deadly overdoses. More Americans overdosed on heroin in 2015 than were killed with guns. Nearly four times as many Americans ODed on heroin as were killed by terrorists in the dozen years between 2001 and 2013. This is a big deal.

Our current approach to stopping this epidemic may be making the problem even worse. Despite years of increased law enforcement activity to stop the supply of drugs into and throughout the US, drug use is still a growing problem. We cannot arrest away the opioid epidemic. In fact, arrest and the cycle of incarceration experienced by people who have substance use disorders may be exacerbating the issue.

Author Johann Hari, in his story-driven history of the US war on drugs, Chasing the Scream, concludes that addiction is not simply the result of too much exposure to drugs, or loose policies regarding their use. Addiction, he believes, results from a lack of connection and love, and this disconnection is often a result of childhood trauma. In this scenario, locking people up or isolating people who are trapped by addiction only succeeds in driving them further away from connection and healing, and more likely to continue to use drugs when they are released.

While Hari is an author and investigator rather than a scientific researcher, the findings he cites and the anecdotes described in this book are powerful and should be given weight. Use disorders, like mental health and other behavioral health disorders, are complicated. Many people who develop opioid use disorders, the addictive use of pain medications, heroin, or both, have a variety of factors that contribute to this medical condition. Repeated exposure to the substance, hereditary proclivity, mental health, and environmental circumstances all can play a significant role.

There’s a better way to address the challenges of addiction and the opioid epidemic than throwing people in jail. The answer is compassionate harm reduction policies, which aim to treat people with use disorders like people rather than criminals. These include policies like a good Samaritan law that allows people who are using to report a potential overdose to emergency response professionals with impunity. Another harm reduction initiative is the establishment of safe consumption sites for users to safely inject, smoke, or otherwise ingest substances like heroin or alcohol to prevent overdose deaths and contracting HIV and other health concerns related to intravenous drug use.

The knee-jerk reaction to these policies is often negative. Won’t this just encourage more drug use? Studies from the Vancouver, Canada-based safe injection facility, Insite, show that the opposite is true. Not only have safe consumption sites proven to reduce overdose deaths dramatically, they also increase the likelihood that people will enter into treatment for their disorders and stop using. These facilities encourage relationships rather than exacerbate isolation and disconnection.

This debate is raging in my own city right now. In 2016, King County (where Seattle is located) brought together a cross-sector group of professionals, including medical treatment specialists, researchers, law enforcement, policy makers, and social workers to participate in the first-ever Heroin Task Force for King County. Their goal was to look for innovative solutions to the opioid overdose epidemic. The Task Force’s findings urged the need for compassion, and members of this group are taking that directive and working to institute increased harm reduction policies in Seattle and the environs. Policies under discussion include safe consumption sites, easier access to medication assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, more needle exchange facilities, and continued support for Seattle’s law-enforcement assisted diversion (LEAD) program.

The vision of members of the task force, including Minerva client Evergreen Treatment Services, is that people who are suffering from substance use disorders will be able to use safely. They will be in the presence of a medical professionals who can save their lives if they accidentally overdose, and they will be offered services like primary care or mental health counseling. This set of activities will foster hope and connection for people who otherwise would be ostracized from mainstream society.

As King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg stated at a public conversation around heroin use last year: “Relationships help people who use heroin feel like they are worth treatment.” He then went on to ask, “Do we have that level of compassion in Seattle?”

For the sake of the thousands of people who suffer from use disorders and the thousands more that will suffer in the future in our region alone – I hope so.