Alabama has opportunity to reset American opioid policy

By Reggie C. Pulliam, a new resident of Gulf Shores who has worked on public policy and criminal justice reform in Washington, D.C. and is "eager to begin a compassionate conversation about drug policy in Alabama."

In the ever-increasing, sensationalized headlines produced by the outstanding media in our nation, it was plastered all over the interwebs, television, and newspapers last month that -- for the first time ever -- heroin overdoses have killed more people in our country than firearms.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Here we have a drug, derived from a plant, that has killed more of our neighbors, sons, and daughters than actual weapons. How did we get here? Hasn't our nation been at "war" with drugs for over 40 years? Why have we not won? What is making drug deaths rise? And what can we do to stop it?

Governor Bentley just last week signed an executive order, creating a committee to study the problem of heroin in our state. Presumably, the committee will offer the age-old recommendation of more money for more treatment centers to help "win the war."

Well, the old saying about the "road to hell is paved with good intentions" has never been more accurate in describing this recommendation. Our drug policy in this nation has been to repeat the same policies over and over and over again, as we continue to burn valuable tax dollars and waste resources in fruitless endeavors. The literal definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result. Addiction centers are reactive of the issue, not proactive. It is time to tackle the opioid epidemic from a holistic perspective.

First things first: there is more heroin in our nation than ever before. Record levels. This is due to two non-competing factors: Mexican drug cartels and the FDA. The cartels saw the legalization of marijuana a decade ago, and began growing opium in order to switch their business model, as nearly half of the profits gained by the cartels were from marijuana. We now have a cheap surplus of Mexican heroin flooding our streets. In not-ironic fashion, a couple of years ago, the FDA mandated that pharmaceuticals which included opioids be re-formulated so that you could not inject them and feel "high." This unlikely combination has led to the dramatic increase in heroin addiction within our nation.

Secondly, Alabama leads the nation in opioid prescriptions. It is estimated that there are 1.2 opioid prescriptions for every Alabama citizen. When you go to church or your child's soccer match, count every adult, then multiply that by 1.2. That is how many prescriptions there are in your sanctuary or on the sidelines, and that number is nothing short of frightening. With that many prescriptions for our neighbors and family in this state, there is no shortage of a pipeline straight to the needle and dirty spoon awaiting their fate. Once a person gets addicted to synthetic heroin, there is only a matter of time until the prescription runs out and they use the cheap surplus of heroin which is flooding our Alabamian neighborhoods and streets to get their fix. It is estimated that 15 out of 100,000 Alabamians will die this year from drug overdoses.

Lastly, in order to truly combat this dire public situation, we should take a serious look at examining the issue of heroin/opioid use and addiction as a public health crisis rather than a criminal act. Portugal decriminalized all drugs due to a surge in addiction and HIV infection in 2002. Nearly 15 years later, they are the lowest drug-using country in Europe, where they once were the leader. When you remove the taboo, correctly identify the underlying issue, and treat drug addiction in a humane way, the results will be the same.

Governor Bentley recently created the "Alabama Council on Opioid Misuse and Addiction", and it is set to give recommendations to the Alabama Legislature in the next coming months. The council has the unique power and opportunity to submit new, bold ideas rather than recycling the same failed policies of more money allocation to treatment centers, which will only place a dirty band-aid on the growing scars that addiction creates for the entire state.   

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