Mark Goodson / The Miracle of the Mundane
This is not the opinion of an expert on policy, criminal justice, or pharmaceuticals. Yet my opinion qualifies because I am one of an increasing proportion of citizens who suffer from addiction. The number is increasing in part because a prescription for painkillers creates a habit of use. And those who begin a habit are more likely to become addicted. According to the National Institute of Health—and what is now widely accepted as fact—“Repeated exposure to opioid drugs induces the brain mechanisms of dependence.” Addiction is profitable to the pharmaceutical conglomerate, widely known as Big Pharma, and the American Prison System—two bloated industries.
Without an overhaul in our freedom to prescribe and our precedent to imprison, there isn’t a lot of hope to find a clear solution.
While I’ve been off pills for 10 years this October, I am no stranger to the lure of opioids. When I lived in Los Angeles, I was so hooked on pills that I took runs down to Mexico to bring back over-the-counter, knockoff meds. I lost two friends from opioid addiction in a year. And like so many other sufferers and sympathizers, I have been searching for an answer.
My friend and writer Frank McEvoy suggested we handle non-violent drug offenders in a separate facility. We’ve built so many; we might as well use them. A study conducted by the British Journal of Psychiatry suggested an in-patient period of two years was required to safely reverse the effects of opioid addiction. McEvoy’s idea is to put non-violent offenders in a facility with more counselors and fewer prison guards. Because they are non-violent offending inmates, fewer prison guards would be needed.
In 2011, prison guards were paid a median salary of $43,550. Compare that to a median salary of a drug counselor: $39,000—taken from a pool of 193 counselors with between 5 and 10 years of experience—and we, the people, would be paying less to help the more. I love the idea. Not only could we specialize care for those in need, but those in need also could be further removed from the substances they’ve abused and the people they abused them with.
Of course, there is a big difference between theory and practice. After all, in theory, no government would allow Big Pharma to produce pill-form heroin at such lethal quantities that we end up in a state of emergency. Yet here we are. And the real struggle of governance is applying practical theory into the legislature. Changing the national narrative concerning drug addiction cannot be performed with a magic wand. From the counterculture movement of the 60s to the crack epidemic of the 80s, to the new millennium methheads, the system has labeled those who suffer from addiction as enemies and dangerous criminals.
But the opioid epidemic is something different altogether. The proliferation of pills and their gateway to heroin has affected nearly everybody either directly or indirectly. The problem is not carried in one pocket of the population any more or less than in the other. So we have a rallying call for those in power to understand that when it comes to addiction, we are all in this thing together.
It is disheartening to hear the Attorney General proclaim a resurgence of America’s failed war on drugs. The war failed because harsh penalties and lengthy imprisonment do not deter drug addiction, yet it is framed today as a failure because we stopped imprisoning harshly enough and in adequate numbers—I am referring here to the oft-expressed opinions of federal prosecutors such as Stephen H. Cook and Attorney General Sessions himself.
Our nation’s treatment of those who suffer from addiction contradicts the Surgeon General’s recent report, Facing Addiction in America, which suggests a treatment program for even mild drug abusers.
My friend David Clark is an assistant public defender in Philadelphia. Clark defends clients from a broad spectrum of socio-economic backgroundsBut whether his client is a middle-aged paralegal or a teenage drug user arrested in the open air drug market of East Kensington—either of which would be considered a mild user by the Surgeon General’s report—they are usually put on probation without a required treatment fulfillment.
When I asked Clark about the effectiveness of these arrests, he mentioned the Kensington raid, a three-day crackdown resulting in nearly a quarter of a million dollars in drug seizures and over 170 arrests. “The corners were all occupied the next day,” he said. Getting tough on drugs in East Kensington did not act as an effective deterrent.
Clark also mentioned a program called “Options” in Philadelphia. It is a lockdown ward where inmates are monitored closely for signs of drug use. Clark said it seems many judges are not aware of it at the time of sentencing. Inmates can request it, but it takes a long time to process. “I had one client who waited a year in prison before getting in,” said Clark.
Once out of prison, Clark called the outpatient process ineffective. “People prescribed Suboxone to wean off heroin will sell it for harder stuff. Methadone clinics help, but they’re by appointment. Miss one and they’re likely back on the street.” said Clark.
When I asked him what the answer could be, he said, “That’s the million dollar question.”
With the opioid epidemic declared a National Emergency on August 10, the question has become worth more than that.
I don’t doubt that at this moment, pharmaceutical companies are developing pricy solutions to the problems they’ve helped create. They will lobby their solutions through Congress and continue to be on the profitable side of the problem. Methadone is the most well-known means of treatment. Buprenorphine, a partial opioid, helps taper the sensation of painkillers. Naltrexone helps prevent the effects of opioids on the brain. Naloxone helps reverse the lethal course of an overdose.
Still, the core of the issue will remain our mass production of pills and our mass incarceration of souls. In the same way we spend billions on curing cancer while non-profits spread awareness about the cancer-causing agents that line our supermarket shelves, the good fight for recovery will go on.
There will be new support groups, new studies, new counselors and sponsors, and new public defenders.
And while every victory may appear minor—you can especially understand this if you’ve lost someone to opioids as I have—you cannot put a value on a human soul.
While a broken jaw should have meant rock bottom, it took a psychotic break in Mexico for Mark Goodson to want sobriety.
Now in his 8th year of continuous recovery, he celebrates the simple joys of sober life on his website. He also raves, rants, and reflects on life as a husband, father, and teacher. A poet until he ran out of money, he now teaches English, raises two children with his wife and blogs at The Miracle of the Mundane.