So now, finally, the President declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency last week. As a mother of two sons who have struggled for decades with addiction to heroin, who are survivors of a punitive and retributive criminal justice system, and who have survived accidental overdose, I’m glad that the announcement was made, but I’m deeply concerned that his response “plan” has no merit.
At a time when a person is dying in the U.S. every 10 minutes, he threatens to return to punitive approaches that been shown not to work in the past, and which add to the stigma associated with substance use disorders. This leads to individuals not seeking help when they are in a crisis with opioids. I am appalled that this administration is so unenlightened about a health emergency that is taking precious lives across the cultural and socio-economic spectrum, both in the United States and globally.
The fact that he doesn’t include any new money for treatment and recovery resources shows how little he actually understands the crisis or even cares about the American citizens who are suffering. I am lucky that my sons are both in long-term recovery and working in the field of addiction now, but I know far too many families who have lost a loved one tragically and needlessly to this epidemic. The Public Health Emergency fund has approximately $57,000. Does it follow that someone hand picks the dozen or so people who would get treatment with this fund?
Mothers have a better solution. Since 2014 we have been conducting “Ask Mom How to Save a Life” overdose prevention trainings and naloxone distribution. Naloxone is a safe drug that can quickly reverse an accidental overdose. In San Diego County alone, we have 64 lives reported saved, and we have mothers across the nation who are setting up syringe exchanges and distributing naloxone. Many of these moms have lost their own child because of accidental overdose, so this work is both personal and urgent to them.
Trump’s speech didn’t include any of the solutions that his health chiefs put forward in Congress, such as medication assisted treatment (methadone and suboxone), which have been proven to be effective for treatment of opioid addiction. Moms know that we must keep our children alive so that they can find treatment and recovery, so we advocate for a host of strategies that reduce the harms associated with substance use disorders, including safe consumption services. Also, in states that have legalized medical marijuana, opioid dependence has declined, so listening to real “facts,” and seeking new alternatives without bias is appropriate and critical in these tragic times.
Instead, President Trump used this announcement to call drugs “evil” and a “plague,” adding to the stigma and shame experienced by people who are caught up in the web of addictive illness. He glorified drug courts which promote a paternalistic criminal justice approach for people with drug problems. According to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance on 3/2/11, “Drug courts have not demonstrated cost savings, reduced incarceration or improved public safety.”
“Just say no” didn’t work when Nancy Reagan said it, and it doesn’t work today. Promoting this type of solution is more than naïve; it is insulting to families who have navigated the painful and treacherous waters of opioid addiction. It is instructive to remember the results of the D.A.R.E. program (resist drug offers: Refuse, Explain, Avoid, and Leave). The U.S. General Accountability Office concluded in 2003 that the program was sometimes counterproductive, with D.A.R.E. graduates later having higher than average rates of drug use.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Trump’s speech was when he talked about launching a scare ad campaign directed at youth. Didn’t we learn anything from “reefer madness”? We need to promote honest drug education in our schools, not fear mongering.
President Trump speaks about “fighting addiction” and “winning the war.” What on earth is he talking about? We pour billions of dollars annually ($51 billion) into a war on drugs that is targeted against families, and particularly against communities of color and poverty. 57% of people incarcerated in state prisons are Black or Latino, although they use drugs at the same rate as whites. This call to battle ignores all of the harms that have been caused by prohibition in terms of mass arrest and incarceration, border violence and even accidental overdose. It dismisses the fact that the number of people in prison today for a drug offense is 10 times greater than in 1980, and that the drug war has created significant barriers to housing, employment and education. It is important that in a legitimately important effort to reduce opioid prescribing, we don’t promote punitive prohibitionist policies towards medical professionals. We simply cannot incarcerate ourselves out of what is essentially a public health problem. When he uses this emergency announcement as an opportunity to invoke hatred against immigrants, and speaks about building a wall, it is both vile and dangerous.
Moms have a better way to save lives. We must talk about “healing” not “fighting” and we must take action to reduce shame and stigma, increase access to science-based and therapeutic treatment opportunities and recovery supports. We need to concentrate our efforts on saving lives instead of pompously and ignorantly talking about “winning.” We can learn from countries such as Portugal that have decriminalized drug use and in so doing, increased public health and safety. We suggest a compassionate and comprehensive approach to this public health emergency, including redirecting funds that are wasted on the drug war and putting them into services for this chronic relapsing disorder that is causing such unnecessary grief and loss to our families and communities.
Gretchen Burns Bergman is Co-Founder / Executive Director of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing) and Lead Organizer of the international Moms United to End the War on Drugs campaign.