By Daniel Bruce and Brianna Gwin
Our nation and our state are facing an epidemic that affects every age group, race, religion, and creed. The opioid epidemic has taken the lives of young men and women who have their whole lives ahead of them and grown adults with an incredible legacy behind them. Unlike most diseases that we have found a single, simple medical solution to, the battle against opioid addiction is fought on many fronts. However, if legislators, physicians, parents, and communities can come together with a single goal, there is hope that we can rid our state of this deadly force.
In order to understand the gravity of this epidemic that we face, it is imperative to look at the numbers. In 2015, opioid overdoses killed 33,039 Americans, including 730 Alabamians. While traditionally there has been a gap between the number of men and women affected, that gap has completely closed since 2005, proving that this is a problem for everyone in our communities. Alabama has one of the highest rates of opioid prescriptions in the country with an average of 1.2 prescriptions per resident as opposed to the national average of .71. With prescription and death rates on the rise, it is crucial that we take action soon to curtail the deadly effects of this epidemic.
While many can see that action needs to be taken, there has been a lot of disagreement as to the best solution. Some argue that only legislation that provides for strict consequences for possession of drugs such as heroin or fentanyl will stop the spread of these drugs. However, others maintain that the solution does not lie in legislation but in support for addicts and their families. While these two views lie on opposite ends of the spectrum, a comprehensive approach that incorporates the best of these two opinions may be the ultimate solution to the opioid problem.
At the beginning of the year, Governor Bentley signed an executive order creating the Alabama Council on Opioid Misuse and Addiction. The council is charged with determining a proactive solution to the opioid epidemic, including legislative measures. These legislative measures may cover a variety of areas from legal approaches to drug possession, to an overhaul of our current prescription reporting systems. In a statement earlier this year, Governor Bentley noted that “only seventeen percent of overdose deaths come from actual prescription drugs from practicing physicians.” It is apparent that action needs to be taken to control the amount of illegal prescriptions being issued and the illegal trafficking of these drugs. In February, the state senate proposed a bill that would increase the penalty for possession of drugs such as heroin and fentanyl, making possession of these drugs a Class C felony punishable by 10 years in prison. Currently, heroin and fentanyl possession is only punishable by 2 years in prison. Proponents of this bill suggest that the strict penalties will discourage trafficking and use of these drugs, while opponents argue that it will only push the use and abuse of opioids further underground and offer no long term solution at all. While there is always a danger of increasing underground drug activity, if we maintain a hard stance on the illegal distribution of these drugs into and throughout our state, we will be able to better control access to these deadly drugs, and hopefully decrease the number of opioid related deaths.
While a strict stance on drug trafficking will help with the amount of opioids available, it is only one small step towards a comprehensive solution to the epidemic. The truth is, our current medical system is not prepared to adequately handle the problem that it is faced with. Physicians are required to keep a record of all prescribed opioids in shared databases. These databases can be checked by other doctors to see their patient’s record of prescribed opioids, mental history, etc. However, as they currently function, these databases are too slow and difficult to use for doctors to have to consult on a regular basis. Furthermore, addiction treatment for those without health insurance is almost non-existent. Many addicts find themselves serving time in jail instead of having access to crucial mental health programs that could turn their lives around. Often addicts are thrown right back into the environment that encouraged their addiction in the first place. If we are to truly fight back against this epidemic, we have to find ways to overhaul our medical system and provide addicts with the help and treatment they need to get them back on their feet.
This legislative action will be crucial in preventing further opioid abuse, however there is only so much that legislation and government leaders can do. Another vital contributor to the fight against this epidemic is local communities. Community organizations such as churches, neighborhoods, and families can have just as big if not bigger an impact as any legislation passed by our leaders. The first step towards involvement by these communities is getting rid of the stigma that all addicts are bad people. Yes, there are criminals who are so concerned with their own well-being that they distribute these drugs around our neighborhoods and families. Yes, there are some who would rather stay under the influence of drugs than rise above their present situation. However, most find themselves dependent upon an evil that can only be overcome with outside help. With the limited access to treatment under our current medical system, communities and churches have an opportunity to play a role in dramatically changing these addicts lives. If we can come together as a community to truly help those in need, we may finally be able to see an end to this horrible epidemic.
In order for our communities to become more involved with ending this epidemic, they must begin to see addicts in a different light. Addiction is defined as the condition of being dependent upon a particular substance, thing, or activity. When the community typically learns of these types of drug addictions, their first instinct is to back away from the addict. They assume that since they are addicted to this drug, that they have no hope. That is the furthest thing from the truth. Addiction is dangerous because it changes the brain. It changes the needs of the brain by substituting new priorities to deal with the high involved with the drug. This ends up changing the behaviors of the individual, which is when the community typically disappears. When the community decides to exit the life of the addict, it leaves the addict without people to support them through the tough time they are going through. It puts them in a place of solitude. This leads to exposure to more drugs and potentially life threatening consequences from drug abuse situations such as overdose or a hazardous mixture of drugs. If more people would surround the addict, learn to invest in their life, then hold them accountable for their actions then we could see movement towards the end to this epidemic. Walking side by side with the addict through whatever comes their way could help them overcome this terrible situation. Many people do not know how to support people overcoming this habit because they have never experienced it themselves. The important thing to remember about this epidemic is that one person is not enough to bring change, but if multiple people continuing to invest in the life of the addict to show them that there is hope, there is a way that they can overcome. These drugs are so harmful because of the incredible reliance they place on the addict. Their body feels as if that cannot live without it. That is when the addict should admit their problem and turn to a community who will stand behind them and help them get through this time. The worst thing you can do is leave someone that is in the middle of an addiction alone. Each person that invests can be part of the reason that the addict can overcome and get back to living a normal, healthy life. Are you going to back away and let someone suffer or get involved to help them overcome? Join in the community to help demolish the opioid epidemic.
About the Authors: This article was cowritten by Daniel Bruce and Brianna Gwin. Brianna is an intern at the Reid Law Firm. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Accounting and Business Administration from Auburn University. She may be reached at Brianna.firstname.lastname@example.org. Daniel is an intern at the Reid Law Firm as well and a current student at Auburn University majoring in Political Science and Economics. Daniel may be reached at Daniel.email@example.com.
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