Is it counterproductive to save addicts’ lives?

December 5, 2017

In 2015 there were 133 opioid overdose deaths out of 198 drug overdose deaths in Delaware. From January 2016 to January 2017, the number of overdose deaths jumped to 309 in our state. In a recent Centers for Disease Control report, deaths by drug overdose in 2016 surged by more than 17 percent over 2015. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

This crisis was not driven by an increase in use of marijuana as a gateway drug or by street pushers. It is the result of prescription practices and profit-taking on the part of drug makers like Purdue Pharmacy which has made billions from opioid painkillers. A deliberate marketing push to sell opioids as safe painkillers resulted in massive over-prescription and underplaying the dangers of these drugs. People were addicted without realizing what had happened to them. This is an addiction that was created by our system of for-profit healthcare. Every pill prescribed makes money for the drug maker, takes very little time on the doctor's part, and saves the insurance company money.

Treating addiction is an expensive and time-consuming effort which is complicated by our attitude toward those suffering from it. Unlike our view of costly illnesses like diabetes or cancer, which have both genetic and lifestyle components, there is a tendency to blame the drug addict for the illness. There can even be a kind of fatalism expressed about addiction: There's no effective, quick way to cure addiction so even though it may be regrettable, death is a sort of solution to the problem.

This attitude was given voice by Delaware State Police Troop 7 Captain Darren Short at Rep. Steve Smyk's October constituents' coffee. Rep. Smyk and Captain Short are opposed to police providing naxolone to overdose victims. They fear liability and, in Mr. Smyk's words, the extension of police caretaking to things like giving EpiPen injections. Mr. Smyk believes Narcan itself has helped fuel the current addiction epidemic. He said that Narcan is a safety net that removes the fear of death, and that addicts get "their best high the closer to death that they come," so they resent being awakened with Narcan. They are not grateful.

Captain Short said that during the 'heroin epidemic' when there was no Narcan, people died off and the epidemic ended. Both men are opposed to the decriminalization of marijuana, claiming addicts themselves do not want to see marijuana decriminalized, and that such a law would signal that drug use is becoming socially acceptable.

Addiction, with the associated unnecessary deaths and destruction of the addicts' families and fortunes, is not becoming 'socially acceptable.' The use of naxolone, the development of medically assisted addiction treatment, the drive to make drug makers pay for their deliberate misinformation campaigns, and the efforts to require insurers to cover the costs of treatment as they cover the costs of other chronic, potentially terminal diseases do not signal society's downfall.

What is destructive of our society is to suggest that it is futile to provide Narcan for overdoses, that perhaps it is even counterproductive to save the lives of addicts. Do we want our lawmakers and police officers to restrict services only to those they approve of or think deserving of care?

Deb Schultz



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