There have been several recent news stories on the opiate addiction epidemic that has been and is still wreaking havoc in our communities. The countless overdoses and numerous fatal overdoses are impacting families from all “walks of life” regardless of their socio-economic status. In fact, I recently read two news articles that claim more people are dying from heroin overdoses in the United States than in car crashes.
When individuals hear about drug addiction, especially heroin or opiate addiction, people conjure up the thought of a back alley drug addict with a needle stuck in his or her arm. But, that is a small number of individuals who are representative of our present problem of those suffering with this terrible addiction.
Every day that I walk through the Cumberland County Jail, I see the “face” of addiction and it does not necessarily match the aforementioned profile. Some of the addicts look just like you and me, but due to an injury or surgery that required the use of pain medication, they became addicted to narcotics. That addiction started by the use of pain medication or pain killers and after a while grew to the need for a better “high” than what the pain medications gave. I have heard inmates describe the path to this terrible malady as “falling in love” with the feeling those medications gave. We also stereotype the addict as using medications, or heroin because they chose to, when the only choice the addict made was the first time they decided to use the particular drug. In essence, the drug addict doesn’t control the drug, but the drug controls them.
We cannot “arrest” our way out of this public health crisis. We need a comprehensive plan to arrest the drug dealers that are bringing the drugs to Maine - often from Massachusetts and New York. This, while also making sure that the addicts get the necessary drug re-habilitation to end the craving of the drug. I recently heard an inmate give an interview to the media. The inmate claimed that for a drug dealer in Massachusetts or New York, it is very lucrative for them to come to Maine as they can sell the same amount of Heroin here for $60.00 more per unit than what the drug goes for in their own community!
Compounding the current heroin overdose deaths is the fact that the heroin is now being mixed with a powerful synthetic opiate that increases the heroin’s potency called fentanyl. This non pharmaceutical drug that is manufactured in many forms from scratch in illegal labs can be extremely potent and deadly in very small doses. Consider now, mixing it with another powerful narcotic, namely heroin!
Arresting the user and expecting the Cumberland County Jail or any jail for that matter to provide the necessary treatment is not a wise use of tax payer funding. Corrections Officers are not trained to be drug counselors. This is not the role they were hired to fill, nor do the normal operations of a jail facility allow them the time to take on that role. Incarcerating drug addicted individuals becomes a vicious, never-ending and tragic cycle. Interestingly, in many cases, the per diem rate for a drug treatment facility bed is less expensive than the per diem rate at the jail. However, only a small number of drug users are able to access impatient drug rehabilitation facilities nationwide.
For those who understand economics, and the theory of “supply and demand”, in addition to arresting the drug dealers limiting the supply, we need to attack the “demand” part of the equation utilizing a more effective method than arrest. The results will be two fold. Drug addicts get a second chance to live and recover from this devastating situation. The “big city” drug dealers will leave Maine because they are only interested in making money.
I have mentioned “public health crisis” several times in this article and I think that the issue of drug addiction could be described as Public Enemy Number One. Its devastation is far-reaching as families watch their loved ones die before their very eyes, crime rates increase in towns and neighborhoods, and correctional facilities become overburdened and unable to meet the real needs of the addicted individuals. As a community member you can help by taking the time to encourage your legislators and the Governor to develop a more comprehensive approach to this problem. It needs to include drug rehabilitation services that complement the efforts to rid our communities of the opportunistic drug dealers.
Maybe I am an idealist, but I believe that it is not so far-fetched to believe that someday, if every community were to adopt this more realistic approach to solving our public health crisis, we could see a marked improvement in a relatively short time. No family should ever have to suffer such loss and no individual should be left in our current tragic cycle of hopelessness.
Sheriff Joyce will be the keynote address at a community forum on Tuesday, October 27th at 6:30 p.m. at the Windham Public Library, 217 Windham Center Road. Learn about the connection between prescription drug abuse and heroin and how to be part of the solution.