Our City on Drugs

Madison's addiction problem is an epidemic

I don’t mean to be cute, but I thought I knew a thing or two about drugs. Anybody who came of age in the ’60s knows a thing or two about drugs if for no other reason than we were surrounded by them, symbolically if not literally. And that includes heroin.

Although I typically associated the kingpin of all drugs with jazz musicians in the ’50s, a fair number of hippies, including some well-known rock stars, experimented with heroin. Many of the experiments did not end well. But by and large somebody I knew tried everything, and we all had strong opinions one way or the other about the role of drugs in our lives and our world. There’s still a temptation among some of us to lump most “recreational” drugs into the stereotypical “expand your mind” or “mellow out” excuses for uses. Even if we may not embrace them as enthusiastically or as innocently as we once did.

But after attending a drug poisoning summit in late January, along with more than a hundred doctors, nurses, cops, pharmacists, counselors, public health officials and concerned citizens, I have to admit I had no clue as to the breadth, depth, complexity and life-threatening reality of the heroin epidemic in our society—including right here in peaceful little Madison. And Oregon. And McFarland. Heroin is every-where. And it affects everybody. And it is being used by, well, just about anybody. The real eye-opener for me was the path from the internist, dentist or orthopedist to the dealer around the corner from the pawnshop. Today’s heroin overdose often has its roots in a prescription for Vicodin, or mom’s prescription for Vicodin. It’s a rough trip.

The first thing we have to understand—as smart, drug-savvy doctors and hospice caregivers and palliative care experts will tell you—is opiates are truly wonderful, life-enhancing drugs, when correctly administered for pain. The ability to ease the pain of cancer patients or those with serious injuries is a blessing. These drugs are miracles of modern medicine. But they are powerful. On top of that they are eventually addictive. Scientists are learning more about how this works all the time and that research will help get a handle on this problem. But we’re not there yet.

The second thing we have to understand is opiate overdosing is a public health problem, not a law enforcement problem. There are collateral issues to drug addiction that can involve law enforcement, but arrest and detention cannot solve the problem. Intervention, treatment and of course prevention can. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this issue to comprehend is that the top priority is to save a life. There are drugs available to both reverse and then replace life-threatening heroin use. We’ve got to get those drugs to those addicts when they need them and then start the process of recovery.

Like alcohol, this is a problem deeply rooted in our culture. Most of us want to be pain-free. Too many of us want to self-medicate. Science is providing stronger pain relievers. Docs are under all kinds of pressure to prescribe them. The good ones, that is. The bad ones, the pill mills, should be closed down and thrown in jail.

There’s so much more to this issue. But suffice to say the summit resulted in a commitment to continue. Thanks to Safe Communities, the right people are talking to each other and there is a new momentum for enhanced public education efforts, law enforcement policies, legislation, record keeping, treatment options and prescription policies.

During a break I overheard a counselor on the phone telling a mom there was no treatment opening for her addicted son for six weeks. If I didn’t recognize the life and death nature of the issue before, I did then.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at nheinen@madisonmagazine.com.

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