Commentary: Non-discriminant killer needs unified response
It usually starts out harmless. Painkillers are prescribed to individuals who need them. Sometimes patients may be unaware of the addictive nature of these prescribed opiates, other times physicians are pressured to completely alleviate a patient’s pain to maintain approval ratings. Quickly and unintentionally, they get addicted. If those prescription opioids become unavailable, heroin is there to meet the need.
These opioids, found in home medicine cabinets and on bathroom counters, are so powerful that the body quickly develops a fast and more intense craving, creating a heightened level of addiction. An estimated 6.5 million Americans abuse prescription drugs. Now it is a leading cause of death, surpassing deaths by motor vehicle accidents in the United States.
This problem hasn’t avoided central Illinois, either. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, heroin admissions for state-funded treatment centers in Illinois were over 56 percent higher than the national average in 2012, and the tragedies persist. The Gateway Foundation is one of the largest treatment providers in Central Illinois. Gateway receives 235 calls per week, and nearly 90 percent of its clients are heroin or opioid addicts. However, they have only 102 beds to serve 60 counties. Resources are needed to combat this epidemic at our local levels.
This opioid epidemic is non-discriminant. It transcends socio-economic status, educational levels, racial differences and age gaps. It hits urban, suburban, and rural areas. No demographic is exempt.
I was a state and federal prosecutor for over a decade. I am familiar with the consequences of drug addiction and overdose. I know this: just locking people up will not solve this problem.
So what do we do? In a series of round table forums that I conducted across our district including one in Springfield, I posed this question to law enforcement officers, drug task force representatives, prosecutors, judges, addiction specialists, and those who have lost loved ones to opioid overdose. The answer isn’t simple, but it was consistent: this complex problem requires a multifaceted approach.
At its core, this problem is a public health crisis, not a law enforcement-centered issue. Every puzzle piece must be in place to terminate this crisis. Treatment and rehabilitation are also essential, and that requires resources.
Last week in Congress, the House passed legislation with my strong support and input aimed at addressing this crisis. These measures range from enhancing treatment, to preventing addictions in the first place by updating medical best practices, to allowing prescriptions to be partially filled to prevent over-prescription. The Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Reduction Act of 2016 creates a streamlined opioid abuse grant program, authorizing $103 million annually for a variety of programs, including residential substance abuse treatment, drug courts, training for law enforcement and criminal investigations for unlawful distribution of opioids.
People battling opioid addiction are not all bad people, many are merely trying to get well. We cannot arrest or spend our way out of this problem. We must work our way out of it together, ensuring resources are spent in the most impactful way for those on the front lines in our communities.
Darin LaHood represents Illinois’ 18th District in Congress. The district includes Morgan and part of all of most surrounding counties.