Want To Cut Overdose Deaths In Half? Try Listening To Recovery Advocates.

With a few key changes, the United States could reduce drug overdoses by 50 percent. But that means challenging our prejudices about addiction.
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Americans are dying at record rates. People with substance use disorder are a significant population in our country, but what are leaders doing to protect them and prevent overdose deaths? Ignorance and fear cause people to throw up their hands instead of tackling the problem.

Yet, with a few simple changes, we could cut overdoses by 50% and offer millions of Americans a chance at a happy, productive, sober life. This drug epidemic is not a new problem. It’s been around for 30 years, created by the inaction of irresponsible, antiquated government agencies. Big Pharma and drug importers caused the recent spike in deaths and addiction rates, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t look at the overall issue and make some common sense changes: fast.

The first change leaders would need to make is go back to treating addiction like an illness and not a criminal problem. Yes, we can still deal with the public safety side. We’ll still punish crimes associated with addiction, but we need to stop felonizing the petty consequences. We can save time, energy, and funding by focusing on real crimes, like rape, armed robbery, malicious wounding, and murder. This includes many changes to the criminal justice system.

The second thing is have services available the hour that people with substance use problems seek it. We already have these services, but we need them to be widespread and readily available. Walk-in, five-day taper buprenorphine detox for opioid addiction, medical alcohol and benzo detox, and harm reduction treatment such as Suboxone and methadone are all critical services. However, we can’t just medicate our way out of this. We ought to outlaw the practice of unnecessarily hooking people in recovery on Suboxone and methadone. That’s just as bad pain as clinics that overprescribe pain medications. There are plenty of bad Suboxone and methadone players, too, and they do just as much damage.

Third, as recovery services are expanding, we also need to build out accredited, authentic recovery community centers, complete with recovery residence living. These should all be guaranteed funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This group is the federal agency responsible for funding these services in each state. Our leaders need to ensure that SAMHSA steps up and does its job. Clearly, SAMHSA and the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors (NASADAD) have lost their way. They’re not choosing effective solutions to the drug crisis, and are therefore inadvertently contributing in part to the problem.

These two groups are so hung up on their own red tape that they’ve overcomplicated simple solutions. Recovery is the solution to addiction, go figure. Slow-moving, complicated, antiquated government-funded substance abuse systems do what they’re meant to do, but there is a price to pay. People die while they’re waiting for help. Part of the problem is the government’s deliberate barriers against funding simple, authentic recovery systems. This is the most perilous time in our nation’s history. SAMHSA and NASADAD members know damn well that the recovery community is a major tool: we offer solution after solution to our nation’s crisis. Yet, they continue to ignore our needs and effectiveness.

Congress needs to act fast and get those desperately needed funds to authentic recovery community organizations. These are the groups that are doing same-day triage in our communities, on the front lines. We need a permanent funding stream, not begging like a dog for people’s survival. We need to put a stop to Request for Proposals (RFPs) and ridiculous grants that only fund jobs. That’s not maximizing the outcome of our precious tax dollars.

You see, America, we have a problem. Once again, Big Brother government is telling us what we need. They’re ignoring what we are asking for and need. Our leaders need to recognize that we can solve our epidemic if we can get the funding we ask for to utilize our protocols. It’s our tax money, our communities, and our families that are at stake. Whatever happened to we the people?

For over 15 years, I have been explaining to my state substance abuse director and SAMHSA what we need. For 15 years, our addiction epidemic has only gotten worse. My 35 years in successful recovery teaches me that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is insanity. I can only call this epidemic insane. SAMHSA and NASADAD simply are not designed for what America needs now. It’s time for a third rail: a recovery rail. We need a program that is funded and directed by authentic, recovering communities.

There’s not a moment to waste. This is what we need, and we need it now!

John Shinholser is a person in long term recovery and President and Co-founder of The McShin Foundation.