CONNOLLY: Consider the big picture
An increased focus on helping individual drug addicts recover would do much to stifle the heroin trade
Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death from an apparent heroin overdose is indicative of a larger problem: the heroin trade seems to be on the rise. Heroin seizures are steadily increasing in New York State, up 67 percent in the last four years, as are heroin-related deaths, up 84 percent between 2010 and 2012. And the problem is not limited to New York. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin devoted the entirety of his “State of the State Message” to the “full-blown heroin crisis” ravaging Vermont. Heroin deaths nearly doubled in Vermont between 2012 and 2013, and since the year 2000, Vermont has seen an increase of over 770 percent in treatment for opiate addictions.
The effects of heroin use are not limited to the user alone. While heroin can be deadly to the user, heroin dealing has the potential to rip apart a city or a community. Open-air drug markets in cities such as Wilmington, Delaware and Camden, New Jersey, where heroin is swapped on street corners and in project lots, lead to higher school dropout rates, greater violence and the continuation of a vicious poverty cycle. American demand for heroin and other drugs also fuels a massive drug war in Mexico. Well over half of all American drugs stem from Mexico, largely from cartels at war with one another and with the Mexican government, to the tune of over 90,000 dead during Felipe Calderon’s presidency and over 1.6 million displaced from 2005-2010.
In the coming weeks, I will outline many of the problems associated with heroin distribution and usage, and suggest a few remedies. To be sure, the problem is not simple. Drug dealing is an institution and a business; it is entrenched in our society. Combatting this reality requires a multifaceted, cohesive strategy.
This week, I choose to focus on the most base level of heroin trade: individual use. I am confident that every American child has, at one point in his or her life, been given a spiel on heroin use or drug use in general. They have no doubt been told that heroin can kill the user at any time, even at first use. They have been told that heroin is unbelievably addictive; so addictive that first use can incite an addiction, where the user prioritizes heroin use over everything else. They have seen pictures of emaciated, scarred arms; bodies withered and shrunken by drug use.
Helping these people — these addicts — would go a long way towards extinguishing the overall heroin trade. Helping these people has two components: treating addiction and preventing overdoses.
Treating addiction requires classifying individual drug use as a public health problem, as opposed to a criminal problem. As Vermont health commissioner Dr. Harry Chen stated, “The Centers for Disease Control and most national experts agree that there’s an epidemic of drug overdose deaths in America…nationwide, more people die of drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes.” In Vermont, almost 80 percent of inmates are jailed on drug related charges. But it is worth noting that incarcerating a person for a week costs the state $1,120, while a week of addiction treatment at a state center costs $123. Expanding addiction treatment facilities, and directing more users to these centers, as opposed to prisons, would go a long way towards helping users beat addictions and re-enter society with a lower relapse risk, in addition to being financially prudent.
Heroin overdoses are also quite preventable. As Dr. Robert S. Hoffman outlined in a New York Times editorial last week, there is an antidote to heroin overdose “that is nearly universally effective.” Naloxone, which can be administered via needle or as a nasal spray, removes heroin from brain receptors and can help restore normal breathing in case of an overdose. Some New York City hospitals already distribute this chemical to users, but in light of the severe uptick in overdoses, wider distribution — in New York and around the country — is needed. According to the Annals of Internal Medicine, about 85 percent of overdoses happen in the presence of others. Training users and their friends to recognize the signs of an overdose and how to use Naloxone could dramatically reduce overdoses nationwide.
These policies that I have briefly outlined would help to treat users experiencing an overdose, as well as curtail individual addiction. Users represent just one component of the complex heroin problem. But users fundamentally fuel the entire drug trade, so more effective treatment of addicts would go a long way in dealing with the problem as a whole.
John Connolly is an Opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.