The way to beat the country’s opioid crisis is to medically treat opioid addiction rather than just throw addicts in prison.
Or, as both Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director John Dowdy and agent Tammy Reynolds both said during a town hall meeting: “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”
Nearly every seat in the Columbus Municipal Complex courtroom was filled at Tuesday’s meeting, which MBN hosted alongside other law enforcement and medical agencies, including the Mississippi Board of Pharmacy and the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. Authorities have been holding similar meetings all over the state to highlight the opioid problem and discuss solutions.
As prescription drugs prevalence has in the United States, more people have become addicted to pain pills, which can turn into an addiction to heroin, Dowdy and Reynolds said. Approximately 80 percent of heroin users in the U.S. say they first became addicted to prescription painkillers.
Mississippi ranks fourth in the nation for number of opioid prescriptions written per capita, with Alabama ranked first, Dowdy said.
“We can’t just sit by and let this continue,” he said.
In 2013, there were more than 33,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States, averaging 91 deaths per day or one death every 16 minutes, Reynolds said.
It’s the equivalent of 81 full Boeing 747s crashing and killing everyone on board. Reynolds suggested the audience imagine if one such plane went down every four or five days.
“You would think by the second, definitely by the third … that the federal government (would) take that 747 apart piece-by-piece to determine why all these people died,” she said.
Those numbers have been on the rise the last 10 years, Reynolds added. When she first became an agent 20 years ago, she rarely saw heroin and never saw fentanyl, a prescription opioid which drug dealers have begun mixing with heroin. Since the 1990s, the number of prescription opioids U.S. doctors have written has quadrupled, she said — and so have opioid overdose deaths.
But 20 years ago, Reynolds added, she thought addiction was a choice. Now she said she understands it as a mental health issue.
And arresting the addicts isn’t the answer, she said.
“(Director Dowdy’s) tried,” she said. “I’ve tried. It’s not working.”
A mental illness
In order to treat the problem, state agencies must collaborate with mental health professionals and other community organizations, Department of Mental Health spokesperson Ann Rodio said.
Rodio is project director of DMH’s $3.5 million grant from the federal government to target opioid addiction in the state. At Tuesday’s meeting, she suggested solutions from increasing the number of mental health treatment centers in local communities to providing law enforcement, first responders and even addicts’ close friends and family members with dosages of Narcan, a drug that counteracts opioids.
“We just want to stress: this is a disease,” she said. “It’s no different than someone who develops Type 2 diabetes.”
Keenyn Wald, director of Alcohol and Drug Services at The Pines and Cady Hill Recovery Center in Columbus, took it a step further — not treating opioid addiction as a disease is killing people, he said, and the stigma attached to addiction keeps friends and family members from finding ways to help their addicted loved ones and keeps addicts themselves from seeking help on their own.
“Shame and guilt kill more people than any other thing,” he said.
There’s another problem with not accurately reporting addiction numbers, Rodio added. The federal government provides grant money and other funds to Mississippi Mental Health providers based on how many Mississippians are believed to suffer addiction. The fewer addicts who seek treatment, the less money Mississippi gets for that treatment.
Rodio and other state officials stressed the need to raise awareness of the opioid crisis as an epidemic and increase the number of mental health facilities in local communities. Another way to combat the problem is drug courts, which Dowdy called one of the best tools “in our arsenal.”
Dowdy added he would like to see an addiction treatment program for as many inmates in the Mississippi Department of Corrections as wanted one, rather than just court-mandated alcohol and drug services. He also called for local law enforcement officers and prosecutors to make distinctions between the addicts and the dealers feeding their addictions so that the addicts don’t simply sit in jail without getting any kind of treatment.
“We’ve got to get these people cured,” he said.
As for the drug dealers on the streets, burglarizing pharmacies, lacing heroin with fentanyl and feeding addiction, Dowdy was much less tolerant.
“Arrest them,” he said.