Heroin and opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions in this country resulting in rising numbers of fatal overdoses among our children and adults. This puts a strain on law enforcement and medical resources and frustrates addiction professionals while at the same time ripping families apart. The United States is the only country in the western world facing this rising tide and we are being attacked on several fronts at the same time. Therefore, we must confront this epidemic with the same resolve we confront terrorism.
Cheap, potent, heroin is flooding across our borders. Recent studies have concluded that four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers. A 2014 survey reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry found that 94% of respondents in treatment for opioid addiction said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were far more expensive and more difficult to obtain. Social service agencies, educators and health care professionals are overwhelmed and under supported in their efforts to not only prevent the use of these drugs, but in their work to treat those who have fallen victim.
This is a national crisis.
It is the position of the Smithers Foundation that the effort to overcome this crisis must begin with law enforcement, which must play a significant role in prevention, treatment and recovery. A wall of protection must be built that will include the Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, national and municipal police forces. prosecutors, courts and the corrections community, electronic surveillance and physical barriers where they will be effective. Only a well-coordinated, well-funded effort to fight this battle will result in victory. Unfortunately, even in the face of the continuing erosion of our youth, many advocacy groups continue to view law enforcement as the enemy and not part of the solution. They are wrong. Law enforcement is the key to prevention because the best path to attack this epidemic is the cutting off of the supply of heroin and opioids. Starting at our borders law enforcement resources must be increased.
But we cannot stop there. From small town sheriffs to big city police departments, law enforcement must be committed to expand their activities beyond interdiction and arrest. That will require their support of drug education programs, treatment services, and judicial alternatives to prison. Along these lines the Rutgers University Center of Alcohol Research, which is funded by the Smithers Foundation has begun to offer free training to help New jersey police departments deal with addiction. Other support for this position is demonstrated by LICADD (Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency), which works with the Suffolk County Police Department, as soon as a drug arrest is made, to determine if the arrestee is an addict and gets that person help. Another successful program is DTAP (Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison) pioneered by the District Attorney in Brooklyn. NY DTAP has now become a growing national movement. Dealers are not eligible for alternative programs such as these. A recent program announced by the US Attorney for the Southern District of NY, Preet Bharara, exemplifies the kind of comprehensive strategy needed to fight addiction. He has asked local police departments to report fatal overdoses to his office. He will then use the considerable resources of his office to track down these dealers of death and charge them with federal crimes, which carry long prison sentences upon conviction. But first we must understand that heroin/opioids are incredibly addictive and make any hope for real recovery extremely difficult. The importance of using law enforcement must not just be viewed as having a punishment dimension. Rather we must encourage a redefinition of that role.
The Smithers Foundation position is that building prisons will not solve this problem but law enforcement should in fact serve on many different levels and therefore become an integral part of the entire recovery and rehabilitation process. The fact that law enforcement will remain involved from the onset will ensure that compliance with recovery efforts is more assured and relapse will be less likely. Heroin addiction eventually overwhelms one’s life, effective job and educational performance and leads some to become dealers in the drug in order to support their own habit. Law enforcement must recognize the difference between a user/dealer and a dealer whose prime motivation is to make money off the desperation of others.
As the law enforcement role extends beyond arrest the opportunity for addicts to turn the corner will be significantly enhanced by this understanding. It is well known that bonds are more commonly formed when people interact with each other and with time and with commitment, this is an outcome we can hope to see between addicts and the sophisticated well administered programs run by the authorities.
Who better then to ensure recovery than those who can compel it? And only then will we have a chance for a successful realistic reduction in drug use.