There are many issues and challenges we face as a society that are ripe for spirited political debate. Addiction isn't one of them. Governor Christie's position that we must treat addiction as something other than a crime is exactly correct. Addiction - whether you buy the disease designation or not - is for some people a virtually irresistible, destructive force that compels the addict's cooperation in his own destruction. That concept can be a difficult one to reconcile for those who have had the good fortune not to have battled addiction - their own or a family member's. Unfortunately, that pool of lucky people is dwindling as the heroin epidemic continues to voraciously march through our streets and schools. Alcohol, while not the substance of the moment, continues it's incessant march.
There is room for debate about exactly what addiction is. Cancer is unquestionably a disease - seeming to have a mind of its own and an unrelenting mission no matter the intentions or actions of its victims. Addiction, in many ways, is much more complicated. It is a condition whose progression depends on the direct, intentional participation of the afflicted. The fact that the addicted are complicit in their own destruction is both frustrating and confusing for all involved. It is easy for caregivers and loved ones to be sympathetic to cancer victims. Addiction is as likely to elicit anger, blame and scorn as sympathy.
Addiction is akin to slow motion suicide. It is excruciating for family members forced to watch their loved ones battle the disease or - even worse -appear to join the fight against themselves. Begging and pleading for the addict to heal himself becomes a frustrating exercise in futility. It seems like it should be so.....easy. If a cancer victim could.....just....stop her disease, she would. Why can't so many of the addicted? That's the battle. Against what is an irresistible compunction for so many people.
Senator Joe Vitale and Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini have done incredible work in our efforts to battle addiction on the legislative front. Governor Christie has consistently espoused compassion and treatment over scorn and incarceration. The recently enacted laws such as expansion of drug courts, strengthening prescription monitoring, encouraging proper disposal of unused medications and provision of treatment provider assessment reports are a good step in the right direction. We need to prioritize addiction services, increase treatment services and provide opportunities for treatment BEFORE addicts end up in the legal system or in life-threatening crisis. As things stand now we actually place barriers in front of those seeking voluntary treatment - the very people most likely to be able to turn their lives around. There simply aren't enough beds and we focus on those already embroiled in the legal system - leaving those who might be the best candidates for treatment waiting weeks or months for help. When you're on the slippery slope of addiction hours are critical, days are interminable, and weeks are incomprehensible. It is tragic that the best advice one might give an addict begging for treatment is to get arrested. This must be the next focus of we New Jersey policy-makers.
There are areas where we can do better to head off addiction before it starts. The message we send our young people today is deeply flawed. Telling them that marijuana and heroin are essentially equal threats is a joke that only works to destroy the credibility of our overall message. Kids are smart. If we say stupid things they will begin to ignore us, even when we're being wise. We must accept that they're capable of understanding the nuance of the message "you shouldn't do alcohol and marijuana because they will damage your developing brains, but you shouldn't try pills and heroin because they will kill you".
Our own insistence that we be prescribed heavy duty opiates for every ache and pain both exposes us to potential addiction triggers and provides access by our kids to millions of leftover pills in our medicine cabinets. Our system of medical reimbursement encourages doctors to quickly assuage our requests - better to make us happy so they are highly rated and can get on to the next patient - than to take the time to convince us that an aspirin is all we really need.
Heroin is the substance of the moment coursing through our neighborhoods - and too many of our childrens' veins - knowing no socio-economic or racial boundaries. We must continue to shine a light on this epidemic - and let both addicts and their loved ones know they aren't alone and there is no shame in their torment. Only by joining together as a community united in battling this scourge shall we defeat it.