Opioid Initiative—Only the Tip of the Iceberg

In an interesting move today the US Department of Health and Human Services announced nearly $53 million in funding to back the Opioid Initiative. The Opioid Initiative, which was launched in 2015, was created to improve prescribing practices, expand medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and increase the use of Naloxone—a specific MAT drug that treats someone in the midst of an overdose.

While this kind of funding is bringing the US opiate addiction crisis the kind of awareness it deserves—it isn’t doing enough. Even though it is true that MAT opiates sometimes save a life in a crisis situation, they can cause more harm than good in the long term. 

Addiction is a disease centered in the core of the brain. When active addiction is in full force it manifests by taking over the mind. I believe there are visible symptoms of active addiction: lying, cheating, stealing and ultimately abusing mood-altering substances in order to escape the discomfort of being present in this life. 

The term “recreational use” of heroin, meth, speed and pill popping is a complete misnomer. There is no recreational use of heroin—the only use is abuse. Drugs and alcohol are not the core problem of the epidemic in our country—they are just the tools addicts abuse to distract them from the root of the real issue they can’t face: feeling.  

In regards to drugs like Naloxone and Suboxone I believe they have real benefits but only for a very small minority of addicts. Those who have abused opioids long-term and have tried everything to quit sometimes turn to Naloxone and Suboxone as a last resort to keep them alive. Prescribing these maintenances and emergency-only drugs to new drug users like Millennials, is, in my opinion absolutely wrong. These FDA-approved drugs are a temporary solution to a deep-seated, foundational problem. Prescribing these to Millennials is robbing them of the opportunity to achieve long-term sobriety.

This new funding is the wrong answer to a misguided question. The question isn’t: how can we stop the opioid addiction epidemic in this country. The real question, the tough question, the question no one wants to ask is: How can the US respond to the people affected by a devastating addiction? 

The people. The individuals. The addicts. The families of addicts. These are the ones that need the kind of long-term care and recovery resources that bring lasting change. This funding is like a small Band-Aid on a gaping wound—it won’t last long, it barely helps and it can distract from the deep healing that really transforms lives and makes a difference.

Yes, there needs to be a reign on out-of-control prescribing practices but funding that goal only focuses on doctors—not on the addict. Yes, there is a place for medication-assisted treatment drugs appropriate on a case-by-case basis, but the expansion this funding supports only focuses on access to these drugs by medical professionals—not on the addict. Yes, Naloxone might help someone in an immediate crisis but that funding, again, only focuses on an ER’s expanded access to that drug—not on the very people it is supposed to save.

I’m interested in the kind of powerful funding that cares about the people and communities committed to support lives in long-term recovery. This kind of funding focus is one of the greatest needs in the recovery world. There are programs and recovery centers across the country doing incredible work guiding individuals from the spiral of addiction to the path of an amazing life of freedom from addiction. 

In today’s world, we have got to use a more creative approach because I know that money can be allocated to better places and in better ways. But this kind of subversive, creative action is dangerous because it is so incredibly powerful. Imagine just glancing at an iceberg—its tip just peeking above the surface of the ocean. A truly compassionate explorer would never just glance at the tip of an iceberg—instead they would wonder about the massive mountain beneath the waves and how to approach and navigate it. They’d care more about what was under the water. That’s where I believe this new funding has made a huge mistake because the money being spent is focused entirely on the tip of the iceberg when the real interest needs to be on the larger picture—on the entire mountain—on the entire individual.

More funding invested in state-run treatment facilities focused on the underlying issues of addiction in an individual will reap far more benefits than what this current funding can. The irony is this anti-opiate drug initiative is putting more money into producing and supplying more drugs. Something really newsworthy would be investing the power of the dollar in state-funded programming, centers, and facilities where addicts are given the opportunity to experience lasting sobriety.

There are millions of Americans with addiction and they don’t have a place to go. Funds focusing on the underlying issues that trigger and perpetuate addiction are the real news-makers. Don’t get me wrong, that $53 million will create some change but I’m living proof that the hard work of recovery is about digging deep and being curious about what lies below the surface—and then continuing that work.

I hope that by raising awareness, we can encourage Congress to allocate more funds towards the facilities doing the important work of long-term recovery.

At the end of the day, the only goal, the most important one, is to bring, and make available, the highest level of recovery care and treatment to as many people as possible.

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