To The Daily Sun,
Governor Maggie Hassan has called an emergency session of the New Hampshire State Legislature this Thursday to address our state's opioid/heroin crisis. According to Gov. Hassan, "People are dying nearly every day in New Hampshire from the heroin and opioid epidemic, and we all need to work together on a comprehensive approach to strengthen our efforts to combat this crisis and save lives." As most of you know, our own city of Laconia is one of the New Hampshire communities that is struggling the most with this heroin epidemic. In addition to calling this emergency legislative session, Governor Hassan has proposed what she claims is a comprehensive legislative proposal to address this crisis.
Yet, Gov. Hassan's proposed legislation fails to address the most urgent problem related to the opioid crisis. There is a currently a five-month waiting period for anyone struggling with a chemical dependency problem to access inpatient chemical dependency treatment and detox in the state of New Hampshire because our state does not have an adequate number of treatment facilities.
Many heroin addicts cannot afford to wait five months for in-patient treatment. Given the severity of a heroin addiction and the agonizingly painful process of detox, many heroin addicts cannot successfully complete the detox and treatment process through outpatient treatment alone. While the governor's proposal to push insurance companies to pay for chemical dependency treatment is fabulous and necessary, it doesn't matter if there is payment available for treatment if there are an insufficient number of facilities to provide that treatment.
Gov. Hassan's proposal would allocate $5 million for community based prevention and treatment efforts in the next two years, which is also necessary, and I applaud that recommendation. Yet, this funding allocation will do nothing to help solve the five-month waiting period for in-patient chemical dependency treatment. Most of our local heroin dealers in Laconia are addicts themselves and deal to support their addiction. If we could get more of these addicts off the streets and into inpatient treatment, we'd significantly reduce the number of heroin dealers on our streets and we'd make our city safer for us all.
A major obstacle to expanding the availability of in-patient chemical dependency treatment to reduce the five-month waiting period is the uncertainty about whether the New Hampshire State Legislature will approve Medicaid expansion for 2017 to ensure continued funding for this endeavor. While I strongly support continuing Medicaid expansion in 2017, if Gov. Hassan and the state Legislature are serious about addressing the heroin and opioid crisis in our state they will find other ways to fund necessary in-patient chemical dependency treatment until they are able to reach a decision regarding Medicaid expansion.
The part of Gov. Hassan's proposal to increase funding for prosecution and further criminalize people possessing opioids is a misguided effort to address the opioid crisis. Opioid addicts need treatment, not punishment. The United States currently incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world and it is estimated that as many as 70 percent of people currently incarcerated in the United States are incarcerated for non-violent drug related offenses. Jails and prisons are overcrowded — we need look no further than our own Belknap County jail for evidence to prove this point. By prosecuting and giving addicts a criminal record, we make it much more difficult for them to reintegrate into society and obtain gainful employment after they achieve sobriety.
Another harmful component of Gov. Hassan's legislative proposal is that she wants to expand the drug court system in New Hampshire without simultaneously ensuring the availability of adequate treatment resources that are an essential component for effective drug courts.
Many of the heroin addicts with whom I have worked in Laconia are lost young people with untreated trauma backgrounds and mental health challenges from broken families living in extreme poverty. These young people feel no hope for their futures and they need a hand up, not another kick in the teeth.
It is important to take a moment to express gratitude to the true heroes in Laconia's heroin crisis — the men and women that are acting to save lives every day. We are so fortunate to have such a dedicated police force in Laconia lead by Chief Chris Adams. Laconia Police Officer Eric Adams has taken the lead in going above and beyond the typical duties of a police officer to go above and beyond to reach out to the struggling young people in our community by offering options, support, and hope. Our police force is dedicated to collaborating with every interested service provider and community member to make a real difference. It is this type of inclusive team approach that we need at every level of government if we wish to truly make a difference.
As long as there is a strong demand for illegal substances, there will likely be a supply no matter how much we criminalize drug users. According to an article writing by G.L. Fisher and T.C. Harrison, drug treatment interventions can reduce drug use by 40 to 60 percent. According to a 2104 article titled The Management of Substance Abuse, for every dollar invested in drug treatment, seven dollars are saved in health and social costs, including crime and criminal justice costs. Treatment programs are more cost effective for taxpayers than incarcerating substance abuse offenders.
According to another 2008 study by Petteruti and Walsh, "treating cocaine users reduced serious crimes 15 times more effectively than incarceration. Chemical dependency treatment programs reduce substance abuse, crime, and homelessness while increasing employment. Drug treatment not only provided $10,054 in benefits per participant after deducting costs of treatment, but also lowered the chances that a person will commit crimes in the future by 9.3 percent."
Every day, I listen to young people in Laconia tell me that they see no reason to even try to free themselves from chemical dependency because they see no hope for their future. Just a few days ago, a recovering meth addict told me that he turned to meth to keep going when he was already homeless and living outside, starving, and freezing. While it is easy for us to sit in our comfortable homes and judge this choice of a solution, I must admit that I have never been in such a predicament so I must question my ability to judge fairly. If you take the time to listen to the stories of heroin addicts and other folks with serious chemical dependency problems in Laconia, you will often hear stories filled with tremendous suffering and desperation starting from an early age — often long before the substance abuse began. When I listen to these stories, I often think, "there but for the grace of God go I."
Many chemical dependency addicts, including heroin addicts, use heroin and other substances to self medicate their pain and suffering stemming from unresolved mental health challenges, trauma, broken families, poverty, and social isolation. I believe a major cause of our current opioid crisis stems from the state Legislature's decision to gut funding for intensive community-based mental health services and youth and family support, development, and prevention programs over the past decade. If we truly want to resolve the heroin crisis for communities like Laconia, we need to restore funding for intensive community-based mental health and family-support services and other youth support programs to ensure that children, families, and youth receive the help that they need earlier before turning to drugs. We also need to create more opportunities for young adults in our communities to obtain gainful employment that pays a living wage so that they feel some hope for their future. People with hope and a reason to live feel less inclined to turn to dangerous substances such as heroin. Giving people hope and opportunities is a much more powerful motivator to facilitate change than trying to punish people that already believe that they have no hope and nothing left to lose.
A commitment to investing in more inpatient chemical dependency treatment facilities in New Hampshire is an investment in our state's future and an investment in the safety and well-being of our community. Everything and everyone is interconnected. Ultimately what is at stake is the need for us as a society to become clear on and accept our interdependence. We must realize that investing in our most vulnerable citizens is also an investment in ourselves and the people for whom we care about the most because this investment will create safer and happier communities for us all. The myth that each person or nuclear family is an island and only has a responsibility for themselves and their immediate family is a delusion that causes so much unnecessary suffering in our society today.
Although I appreciate Gov. Hassan's initiative to call attention to the heroin and opioid crisis, I would now like both her and the state Legislature to take meaningful action to solve the problem in collaboration with people that work directly with addicts (not just treatment program administrators) and heroin addicts themselves. Please tell Gov. Hassan and your state legislative representatives and state senator not to pass any legislation to address the current opioid and heroin crisis that does not also increase the availability of inpatient chemical dependency treatment and reduce the five month waiting period for this treatment. We need real solutions to real problems.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker