The United States, and Alabama in particular, is facing an epidemic that affects every age group, race, religion, and creed. The opioid epidemic has taken the lives of innumerable young men and women. Unlike many diseases with a single, simple medical solution, the battle against opioid addiction is fought on many fronts. If legislators, physicians, parents, and communities will come together, 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 to curtail the deadly effects of this epidemic. There has been much disagreement as to how the opioid epidemic should be handled. Many feel certain changes in legislation and advances in medicine will fix everything, but this is not the case. People need to find something tangible to hope for, outside of these dangerous drugs.
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. 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 offering no long term solutions. 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 better able to control access to these deadly drugs. This should, in turn, 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 a small step towards a comprehensive solution to the epidemic.
In truth, our current medical system is not prepared to adequately handle the epidemic. Our prescription history databases are slow and difficult for doctors to use on a regular basis, and access to addiction treatment is almost non-existent without extensive healthcare coverage. After serving time in jail, many addicts find themselves without help and thrust into the same environment that encouraged their addiction in the first place. Many on the outside of the epidemic can't help but wonder how this happened. How have so many Americans become so dependent on these drugs? How have they let themselves be consumed by such deadly addictions?
Unfortunately, there aren’t any simple answers to these questions. Many turn to the comfort of these drugs because they feel they have no where else to go. Many people, even those who are not drug addicts, spend their lives trying to fill a void in their lives. Whether this void was left by some past abuse, the carnage of a broken family, the devastation of losing a job, or any other number of troubles we as humans face, it is almost impossible to fill this void on our own. As a society, we need to learn to ask for help when it is needed. In an attempt to relieve the pain, many turn to alcohol, drugs, or pornography. There are also less tangible vices in which people cling, such as money, power, and fame, and they can be just as damaging. We all seek to fill that void with something, and unfortunately many turn to a opioids for their fix.
So the looming question remains, how do we fix the void in our lives? Addiction is certainly a mental issue, and that aspect can be treated medically, but there is also a strong component of addiction that is made up of the individual's choices. While mental health programs can do a great deal of good for addicts and should be fully funded to do so, they alone cannot completely fix the problem.
In order to truly solve this problem, we all need to ask ourselves, “What are we living for?” With what are we filling that void in our lives? The answer shouldn’t be another high, another drink, or more money. We all need something beneficial that we can put our hope in. For some, that support may lie in families and communities. That is why it is so imperative that families, churches, and communities to continue to invest in people’s lives, especially when it comes to addicts. Another source that many, including myself, find their hope in is faith. While families and communities may fall apart, faith is the one thing that can stand alone. I have found in my own life that when I continue to place my hope in the love of Jesus Christ, I am filled. That void that was once there is long gone, and I am able to rise above any situation that comes my way. My faith helps me see that there is something beyond any bad experience I find myself in. It gives me hope that nothing, including the heroin epidemic, is too great to overcome.