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The politics of heroin: Trying to break the dangerous wild horse

By       Message Samuel Vargo     Permalink
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Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in early April announced that first responders in Ocean and Monmouth counties will be carrying naloxone during their work duties. After a long hard battle fighting heroin and prescription pain killers, with hundreds of deaths occurring from overdoses, every police officer in these counties will carry this overdose-preventative aerosol spray, which blocks the human body's opiate receptors.  

"The war on drugs has failed," Christie said during a press conference in Brick Township to announce the launch of the program. "Well-intentioned, conceived out of the hope that it could work, but incarcerating people...has been an abject failure." 

In late March, Massachusetts' Democrat Governor Deval Patrick implemented his emergency powers and told his state's Dept. of Public Health to make Narcan immediately available to all first responders. Patrick's mandates also allow for families and friends of drug abusers to have open access to Narcan. Massachusetts first responders were barred from administrating it under state regulations that were written before the opiate epidemic hit. 

Pragmatic programs designed to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases through sharing needles have always encountered roadblocks. Many feel that giving addicts clean needles is a moral and ethical concern and is a way American society condones heroin use. A recent national survey of 111 United States Needle Exchange Program (NEP) locations, 43 percent reported at least monthly client harassment by outside authorities, 31 percent experienced at least a monthly unauthorized confiscation of clients' syringes, and 12 percent saw client arrests. Police appeared at 26 percent of these NEPs every six months. NEPs serving predominantly injection drug users of color were 3.56 times more likely to report frequent client arrest en route to or from a syringe exchange program and 3.92 times more likely to report unauthorized syringe confiscation. (See: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.03149.x/abstract?userIsAuthenticated=false&deniedAccessCustomisedMessage= ) 

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According to The Lindesmith Center in New York City, "NEPs are a simple, cost-effective way to reduce needle sharing, curtail transmission of HIV/AIDS, increase the safe disposal of used needles, provide information to injecting drug users, and help users obtain drug treatment, detox, and primary health care. Yet the U.S. government prohibits federal funding of NEPs, and many state governments criminalize them. By contrast, national and local governments in Western Europe and Australia have made sterile syringes widely accessible through needle exchanges and pharmacies." (see: http://www.drcnet.org/pubs/guide/06-95/exchange.html )  

But why condone needle exchanges for drug addicts when abusers will resort to criminal activities to their feed habit? A study sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare, along with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, showed a six-fold increase of criminal acts committed during times of heroin use, as compared to periods of abstinence, by 243 male heroin addicts. These men were chosen at random from more than 4,000 heroin addicts identified as such by the Baltimore Police Department between 1952 and 1971. (See: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/abstract.aspx?ID=79110 ) And although this 27-page study was published in 1981, the proclivities of heroin addicts to resort to criminal acts hasn't changed since the article originally saw print. 

Ohio's 13th District Congressman Ryan, who co-chairs the Congressional Addiction Treatment and Recovery Caucus, suggested that the best way to combat opiate addiction is for the federal government to invest in narcotics treatment programs. In early April, Ryan invited Andrea Paventi, executive director of the Mahoning County Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime, to Washington, D.C., to let other U.S. Congressmen know about heroin and opiate addiction. 

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"Most offenders in Mahoning County who are going through Drug Court are addicted to opiates. Those choosing to get help usually must wait for between 30 and 45 days to get a bed in a detox facility. We can't incarcerate people and expect them to get out of prison and maintain sobriety. We must treat them in the community," Paventi said on WFMJ News in Youngstown, Ohio, on April 4. 

There's a big catch, however: The typical opiate addict usually doesn't have medical insurance. The most successful type of in-patient treatment, which lasts 90 days and costs at least $15,000 out of pocket, isn't an option. For those who have health insurance, $1,500 to $2,000 deductibles usually negate sick addicts abilities of getting in-patient help, Paventi said. 

Americans throughout the country will be able to dump prescription drugs that they don't need and won't use on April 26, at virtually every police department and local law enforcement agency throughout U.S.A. The impetus for this "Take Back Day" is the threat of people becoming addicted to pain killers. These opiates are laying around in medicine cabinets coast to coast. Statistics indicate nearly 6.8 million people are now abusing prescription drugs -- more than all addicted to heroin, cocaine, inhalants and LSD combined. And there's a direct correlation with prescription opiate abusers, like pain killer poppers, resorting to heroin use. As an opiate habit intensifies, addicts need more -- much more than a physician can legally prescribe - so rather than face the legal consequences of doctor/prescription chasing, many turn to street dealers who sell heroin for a fix.

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Samuel Vargo worked as a full-time reporter and editor for more than 20 years at a number of daily newspapers and business journals. He was also an adjunct English professor at colleges and universities in Ohio, West Virginia, Mississippi (more...)

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