Treatment, not punishment, will limit opioid problems

President Obama did something remarkable this week.

For the first time, a president talked about drug addiction in America without talking about prosecution, mandatory minimums or a war on drugs.

For the first time, a president talked about a new approach to addiction — an approach rooted in being smart on treatment instead of just tough on crime. His plan would invest $1.1 billion to provide treatment and fight the national opioid epidemic, which he said is affecting everybody.

And he’s right. When it comes to addiction, opioids are the great equalizer. Addiction to prescription painkillers ensnares young and old, rich and poor, white people and people of color. From the 17-year-old kid who drinks Robitussin A-C before he goes to school to the 45-year-old soccer mom who never quit taking OxyContin after her surgery — anyone can become addicted to opioids.

And the most vulnerable — and typically the youngest — often end up addicted to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to come by. Heroin is what claimed the life of my cousin.

Like so many in our communities, Aaron was a good student, an excellent athlete, and loved by his family and friends. But he started experimenting with drugs in high school and soon found himself in the spiral of opioid addiction. Despite attempts at rehab and a family that supported him, Aaron was just 20-years-old when his addiction finally took the ultimate toll.

But this is more than personal to me. The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis that we all need to pay attention to, because chances are opioid addiction will touch most of our lives. According to data from the Department of Health, more than 6.2 million opioid prescriptions were filled in Washington in 2014 for about a quarter of our state’s residents. That means 1 in 4 Washingtonians had an opioid prescription.

In the year prior, Snohomish County accounted for a fifth of the state’s overdose deaths, though we only account for about a tenth of the state’s population.

Numbers like this call for an all-hands-on-deck approach to battling opioid addiction in our communities, and, as the president called for, an approach that involves better treatment, compassion and a smarter approach to reducing addiction.

That’s why last year I worked with one of my Democratic colleagues on a bill to make it easier for firefighters, police and other first responders to get access to Narcan, a life-saving drug that can literally reverse a heroin or opioid overdose. Long-term treatment is the only solution for people addicted to opioids — but they can’t get that treatment if they die from an overdose.

And this year, I brought Democrats and Republicans together to pass my bill that will make it easier for doctors to use an existing system that tracks patients, how many opioid prescriptions they get and where they get them. This will help prescribers know if a new patient is a ‘pill-shopper,’ someone who gets opioids from a doctor until the doctor stops writing prescriptions, then finds a new doctor to continue getting access to drugs.

But one policy alone is not enough to reduce opioid addiction in our communities. Another bill I sponsored this session never got to the governor. It would have made insurance companies cover prescriptions for “tamper resistant” medications — new drug technology that’s been used to manufacture opioids that can’t be broken down to snort or inject. These are new drugs that are already on the market, but most insurance companies won’t cover them.

Between now and next session, I’m working with Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary and our local public health officials to come up with more solutions around access to medically appropriate treatment and supporting first responders and others on the front lines of this crisis.

We need a full toolbox of policies and well-funded services to conquer the opioid and heroin epidemic that’s rampant in our communities. But one of the most important things you can do to help, right now, is to change how you see addictions, and addicts.

When we think of someone who’s addicted, too often we think of a stereotype. But it can happen to anyone, anywhere.

It happens in our suburbs. It happens in our schools. It happens on a kitchen counter in a quiet home in Mukilteo, and in Edmonds in the apartment below yours.

And that’s why we need to do something new, and do something soon.

Thirty years of backward anti-drug policies that focused on punishment more than prevention and treatment got us here. But it shouldn’t take years to get us out.

Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, represents the 21st District in the state House of Representatives.

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