Finding a way forward through opioid crisis

The opioid crisis, which has claimed thousands of lives in Connecticut and across the country, continues to rage. The COVID pandemic has not slowed the rate of overdose deaths, and as time passes new eras of crisis have arisen, with prescription pills leading to heroin and now to fentanyl. None are discreet, but in fact overlap to form a compounding disaster.

The state of Connecticut is due to receive millions of dollars in coming years to help fight this scourge, and it’s imperative that the money be put to its best use. gov. Ned Lamont has proposed as part of his legislative package to establish an Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee, which would help distribute some $300 million over the next 18 years.

The bill would create a committee of experts, including government officials, health care professionals and people with experience living with opioid addiction. It would cover the current settlement from several pharmaceutical companies and any future money from similar suits.

Even after so many years and such widespread harm, there are differing ideas on how to handle the crisis. The bill in question is aimed at ensuring incoming funds go toward treatment, recovery, harm reduction and other resources.

It should be clear by now that we can’t imprison our way out of substance abuse. Locking people up historically only makes the situation worse, and though there may be a role for police to play, this is not primarily a law enforcement issue. Dealing with this problem means recognizing that addiction is not something people choose, and that handing down traditional punishments is not going to solve anything.

Treatment and recovery, then, are key. There’s much work to be done. Available space in treatment centers can be hard to come by, and payment is a huge obstacle. Resources are diffuse, and continuity of care is a serious problem. There are different models for treatment and recovery, and a lack of clarity on what works. What is helpful for one person may not do anything for someone else.

Then there is harm reduction, probably the most controversial piece. The idea here is that for many people, there may be no way to stop them from using substances, and so there must be means available for them to use safely. This goes against the belief systems of countless people who continue to believe that a combination of abstinence and punishment is the only way forward, and that harm reduction only offers people license to hurt themselves.

This is a mindset that must be confronted and faced down. The goal, ultimately, is to keep people alive. Whatever form that takes is something worth pursuing, but as past efforts at institute, say, needle exchange programs show, it can be an exceedingly difficult sell.

There is plenty of work to be done, and no reason to think that what is coming in from lawsuit settlements will be enough. This is a national crisis. Still, it’s important that these discussions are happening and that leaders are looking for better ways forward.

The opioid crisis is not going away, even if it doesn’t appear in the daily headlines. Finding a way forward means having hard conversations.

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