Sophie Wilson ’20
I thought that good people didn’t become addicts. I grew up buying into the stigma, I thought of them as criminals; people who chose to break the law to get high and commit destructive acts. I felt some anger, and also a sense of superiority, towards them and their life choices. That was before I knew someone who was addicted to drugs. I never grasped the reality of addiction until I came face to face with it. Only then did I understand that drug addiction is a disease, not a crime, and should be treated accordingly.
There is an addiction epidemic sweeping our country. 43,987 people in the United States die from drug overdoses each year, more than the number of deaths by car accidents and more than the number of both homicide and suicide deaths put together. That averages to about 120 overdose deaths per day. Despite that insane number of deaths, there is still a taboo surrounding the topic of drug addiction. For too long it has been seen as a crime, keeping addicts cycling in and out of the criminal justice system until they end up dead or permanently behind bars. But “crime” implies an element of choice, and for a lot of addicts, they never had a choice.
Many people are unaware of how drug addiction starts. In the case of heroin, an addictive drug very prevalent in Massachusetts, it often begins with the legal prescription of opioid pain medications. In the US, opioids are prescribed at an unnecessarily high rate. I, for example, was prescribed Vicodin (Hydrocodone) after I had my wisdom teeth removed. I have friends who have been prescribed opioids, including Oxycodone, for anything from an ACL surgery to an accident or chronic pain. The prescription of these drugs has become a norm, and doctors are being pressured to prescribe them whether or not they think a person really needs them. A lot of time, other less addictive painkillers could work in their place.
Opioids are extremely addictive, changing the very chemistry of a person’s brain. They are also fairly easy to access. However, there is something that is even easier and cheaper to access: heroin. This is why many people switch from prescription drug abuse to heroin abuse and quickly spiral into a destructive lifestyle they cannot escape.
It seems clear to me that arresting anyone caught with heroin or illegal prescription drugs is not working. Instead, a more humane approach must be taken. To start, we need to stop labeling people addicted to drugs as “addicts,” because that should not be how we define them. The people I know who are addicted to drugs are much more than just addicts. They have lives with jobs and loved ones, and just like any other sick person, they are not their disease. We should aim for rehabilitation, not imprisonment. Being locked up, often with even more access to drugs, does not benefit anyone. Not only is it very expensive for police departments and prisons, it worsens people’s drug problems.
One city on Cape Anne, just 15 minutes from where I grew up, appears to have found a solution. The Gloucester Angel program, founded by former Police Chief Leonard Companello, offers immediate acceptance to a rehab program for any one who turns themself in along with their drug equipment. It also pairs every person up with an “angel,” someone already in recovery from drug abuse. The program has seen many successes, and other cities across America are starting their own programs inspired by it. The White House even honored Companello for his innovation and success with this program.
Seeing programs like the Angel program not only being created but also appreciated gives me hope that we can find a solution for the opioid epidemic. The way to do it is through compassion and understanding. The country as a whole needs better education about drug addiction, and people battling addiction need more platforms to share their stories. Once we humanize, rather than criminalize addiction, we can start to find a solution.