The still-new emphasis on treatment over prosecution for those addicted to heroin, oxycodone and similar drugs is doing much to lift the stigma of opioid addiction, and for that we should be thankful. Battling the epidemic is a shared responsibility, one that can’t be adequately addressed until we all realize how deeply it is entrenched in every part of our community.
While the focus on treatment is appropriate, attention must still be paid to the other half of the equation — cutting off the flow of drugs in the first place.
Approaches modeled on Gloucester’s now-famous “angel program,” which allows addicts to turn themselves and their drugs in at the police station without fear of prosecution, are getting people into treatment — but doing little to stanch the flow of drugs into our homes.
Of the more than 500 addicts treated since Gloucester’s angel program launched last spring, for example, fewer than 20 percent turned in heroin, oxycodone or other drugs.
And the city is not alone.
In Scarborough, Maine, only a dozen of the 200 or so addicts seeking treatment have turned in drugs and paraphernalia, and even then only in small quantities. In Dixon, Illinois, the Associated Press reports, two of the more than 100 addicts so far placed into treatment have willingly handed over drugs. Authorities in the Cincinnati area offered blanket immunity to addicts more than a month ago. Not one of the 100 or so people coming in for treatment brought drugs with them.
In a sense, it is to be expected. The idea behind the angel program is about the addict, not the drug.
“The tangible drug is just the surface, and with no available access to treatment you’re essentially yelling to a drowning person ‘Just keep swimming!’ without actually throwing a life preserver,” Steve Lesnikoski, the first person to take advantage of Gloucester’s program, told the Associated Press.
Lesnikoski’s statement was echoed by John Rosenthal, co-founder of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, which counts 160 member police and public safety efforts across the country.
“Just to be 100 percent clear, we don’t view our programs as offering ‘immunity’ for people in possession of illegal drugs,” he said. “We are offering access to treatment without arrest, shame or judgment, and if participants happen to bring in drugs, police will gladly receive and destroy them.”
There is growing evidence that those drugs are becoming even more dangerous and deadly. Many overdose deaths over the past year have been attributed to a mix of heroin and fentanyl, an immensely powerful synthetic narcotic. According to the state, more than 50 percent of 2015’s opioid-related overdose deaths included a toxicology screen that tested positive for fentanyl. In response, state lawmakers passed legislation allowing for the prosecution of drug dealers for possession of fentanyl.
It was a strong step. But now a new problem has emerged, as dealers across the country have begun mixing heroin with carfentanil, a heroin analogue 10,000 times more powerful than the drug itself. To get an idea of the drug’s strength, one needs only to know it is commonly used as an elephant tranquilizer. Police and rescue personnel who come across the drug treat it as a hazardous chemical — absorbing it in a cut could prove fatal. Narcan, the rescue drug used to treat addicts in the throes of an overdose, is often useless against it.
Right now, the carfentanil-heroin mix is seen primarily in Appalachia and the Ohio region, where it contributed to 175 overdoses in a six-day span this summer. That may change soon.
“We hope it doesn’t make its way to New England, but unfortunately the demand for opioids is so great here,” Timothy Desmond, a special agent with the New England division of the DEA, told the Boston Globe.
It will be yet another problem for public safety officials and lawmakers, and they must address it as aggressively as they did the fentanyl issue. We are confident they will.
The angel program and others like it are having an effect, and opioid addiction is finally being treated less like a crime and more like a disease. To turn those successes into victory, however, we must do more than treat the disease. We must wipe out the virus.