My father was an early victim of the opioid epidemic in the late ’90s, when I was a teenager. He’d get arrested for driving under the influence or forging prescriptions or selling drugs at work, and they’d place him in the county jail for 6 months, 10 months, 18 months.
I’d drive him to court hearings. I’d drop him off at the county jail. Then I’d visit him while he went through withdrawals, his skin yellow and clammy, his hands shaking. He’d get out of jail and ask me for money for food, or rent, or gas, but I knew he’d spend it on drugs. He always did. And I always gave it to him — because he was my father.
It was a cycle, really. He’d get out, get high, get arrested, get clean, get out… And each time he went to jail, I was hopeful this time it would stick. But it never did. During all those times in and out of the system, clearly addicted, I cannot remember drug treatment ever being mentioned. He was treated like a criminal because he broke the law, but was it really the way to produce long-term change?
Looking back, my father didn’t need more time in jail to get clean. What he needed was to learn how to live a clean life.
According to NPR, the town of Stanwood, Washington is trying something a little different then the way things were handled with my father. Rather than viewing the opioid epidemic as a crime problem, they are treating it like a natural disaster. And I know, you are probably reading this and trying to draw the lines between drug addiction and say, a hurricane or a mud slide, but here’s how they did it.
When Ty Trenary, chief of police in Stanwood discovered that his community had an opioid problem, he had to take a step back and realize that this wasn’t a “big city problem” anymore. It was right there, in his small community. While the bulk of fatal overdoses still happen in urban areas, the rural overdose rate has increased to slightly surpass that of cities.
Trenary toured his county’s jail and realized that, at any given time, half of his inmates were going through opioid withdrawals. As he told NPR, “Detoxing from heroin is like having the worst possible stomach virus you can have. People are…just suffering.”
He started to wonder if the way they were handling opioid addicts was good for the community. That logic right there — thinking about it as a community problem rather than a personal or criminal problem — was what caused him to view the opioid issue in a different light. Instead of making the opioid epidemic a law enforcement issue, they started to treat it like a natural disaster, where all government agencies come together to relieve a struggling community.
To put this change into perspective, when my father was going in and out of the system, he was a criminal justice problem. The only people I ever saw interact with him in regards to his addiction were police officers, lawyers, judges, and parole officers. They took away his driver’s license. They charged him with a felony so he couldn’t get work. With each relapse, he was penalized, lost options, and turned back to drugs.
Before addiction took over his life, he was a skilled heating and air conditioning contractor. After a string of accidents left him injured, he become addicted to painkillers. I remember once going with my father to visit a doctor. I was in the waiting room doing homework when the doctor came out, mentioned my father’s name to the receptionist, and more or less told her to blacklist him from getting appointments because he was an addict. She then asked if she should call the police, and the doctor said, “Not yet, but be ready.”
Doctors, police, everyone shut him out, removed his rights and made it harder for him to survive. It didn’t work. And he died at 49.
Now, back to Stanwood, where they have organized a special emergency operations center to provide dialogue and recourse that my father never had. The official name is the Multi-Agency Coordination group, or MAC group, and representatives from across local government meet every two weeks, including people in charge of everything from fire trucks to the garbage dump, to discuss the opioid epidemic in their community and formulate ways their services can help fight this crisis.
They have a to-do list with over 100 items that fall under seven overarching goals, such as reducing opioid misuse and reducing damage to the community. They break each goal down into manageable steps, like distributing needle cleanup kits and a project to train schoolteachers to recognize trauma and addiction.
It’s a remarkable, unified, realistic, and goal-oriented look at a crisis that isn’t going to go away with jail time alone. They even have smaller steps, like finding community members to give drug users rides to drug treatment. MAC sends teams of police officers and social workers to homeless camps to advise those who are addicted. Their job isn’t to arrest drug users or illegal campers, rather they are there to provide resources and information on drug treatment and housing.
According to NPR, these new approaches are helping. “The teams have helped hundreds of people find housing and drug treatment.
Bottom line: treating the opioid epidemic as if it were solely a crime problem isn’t working, and in a lot of ways, it exacerbates the problem. Opioid addicts need resources, compassion, and a path to living a drug free life. As the son of an opioid addict, I’m encouraged by this new way of looking at the opioid epidemic. So much of it is proactive, rather than reactive, and if this shift had been made in my community 20 years ago, I might not have lost my father.