In 2016 there were 117 fatal overdoses in Lancaster County involving heroin, prescription painkillers and fentanyl, according to LNP. This represents a 40% increase from 2015 and more than double the number of fatal overdoses from 2014.
If you follow local news, or keep an ear to the recovery world, you might have heard that in some towns prosecutors have resorted to criminally charging drug abusers. Our own Lancaster County District Attorney, Craig Stedman even claims that “there seems to be a lot of sense to that specific approach.”
My friends, this is not the solution. Criminal prosecution is, without a doubt, the wrong response to this public health crisis. I understand that this overdose situation is out of control and needs to be more efficiently addressed. But instead of expressing how "fed up and tired" we are about the opioid epidemic, let's commit to understanding more about - showing more compassion to - its victims.
Addiction is a brain disease. Research demonstrates that there are chemical changes in the brain, even after ones very first exposure to opioids. Are we incarcerating people diagnosed with diabetes? High blood pressure? Of course not. We encourage help in these situations, outreach and referral to resources and community support groups. We offer advice, sympathise, maybe even empathise with these fellow men and women. But why, when it comes to the disease of addiction, do we pull away in disgust, criticise harshly with judgement and condemnation and rely only criminal prosecution in lieu of true solutions?
Is it out of fear and a lack of understanding? Because that, I understand. I remember like it was yesterday looking my brother in the face as we sat squished in his hospital bed, after another overdose, asking him - begging him - if this could please be the last time. The last time he did this to himself. The last time he used drugs. The last time he put mom and dad through this torture. The last time...
I will never forget his answer, or the look on his face when he said,
"I wish I could say yes, Nik"
Would he have given up heroin to avoid 180 days in jail and a fine? I wish I could say yes. But having watched, lived with and loved a boy who wanted nothing more than to be well, to be whole, to be enough without substances, struggle year after year, day after day, fighting the disease he ultimately lost his life to the answer is very clearly, no.
Addiction is not a disease we can enforce our way out of. Education, counselling, treatment, intervention, and recovery communities...these are more worthwhile solutions to focus our efforts on. Solutions that speak to the person, not only to the "addict".
(I know I normally talk about nutrition, exercise and lifestyle happenings, but every once in awhile you'll have to bear with me as I wear this bleeding heart on my sleeve. Some things are worth standing up for, no matter how many times you're pushed down.)