Weary Pilgrim – After Long Absence

Hi Folks – it’s been awhile – last time we spoke, the American political scene looked

like a shouting match between two blind drunks who couldn’t remember why they

were arguing in the first place, in distant parts of the world planes were falling out

of the skies for unknown but deeply suspicious reasons, and religious zealots were

Hell-bent on exacting revenge from their former allies, eternal enemies, and pretty

much anybody who wandered onto their radar for reasons neither you nor I will

ever understand. Boy, times really change.

And yet, there have been a few things happening worthy of notice – and a couple of

them seem to be occurring because every now and then we get a leader or two who

has the wisdom to get ahead of the curve – to take the long view.

Case in point – the whole opioid mess. When Peter Shumlin, Governor of Vermont,

spoke up a few years ago in his State of the State message, dedicated entirely to the

crisis of growing opioid addiction in Vermont, people pretty much responded by

signing onto Google Earth to make sure Vermont was still actually there…I mean,

Vermont is one of those states that has two senators and only one congressman,

with a population of about 246 registered voters. Fast forward a couple of years –

turns out Vermont was deeply ahead of the curve – and by curve I mean spiral, as in

down……

Andover, Mass., is a very pretty middle class town. It’s close enough to pop over

there for a quick bite. It’s had 5 heroin overdose deaths this year alone. The

adoption of Narcan, a drug to save overdose victims, is identified as having saved 7

other overdoses. Andover might be leading the stats on the North Shore, but we are

all in this one together.

Have you seen the TV adds for prescription products that are intended to treat

stomach issues caused by opioid use? They scare the Hell out of me – you’re telling

me that so many people are using opioids on a regular basis, drug companies have

identified side effects as a lucrative business? And these ads are presumably

targeting only the legal opioid users. What’s next? Ads for bulletproof vests?

“Protects you from the possible side effect of gun ownership…”

Narcan, a drug that can quickly reverse the effect of an overdose, carries with it a

tragic controversy – I have seen interviews with parents who have addicted children

living at home – these poor people are deeply divided over the wisdom of keeping

Narcan in their house in case of an overdose by their child – they fear that keeping it

at home will send a message of approval to their children. Let me ask you – does

that fear scare the living daylights out of you or what? Imagine wrestling with that

one – it makes the argument over whether or not to let Little Jimmy go out for

football look pretty inviting.

I have a deeply vivid memory of watching a movie in fifth grade back in Lee, Mass,

long, long ago. It featured the story of heroin addicts, living in a crummy apartment,

shooting up, and then dying RIGHT THERE on screen. Scared the Bejesus out of us

all. And you know what? Pretty much nobody I knew from my generation ever went

near a needle – ever. I doubt anyone would let that movie be shown today – it was

badly produced propaganda, and it is no doubt politically incorrect on a zillion

levels. And yet, for my money, it’s badly needed.

The difference between then and now is that heroin was its own gateway drug. The

minimally stupid snorted it, the deeply stupid smoked it, and then the tragically

stupid shot it up. Oxycontin hadn’t even been invented. Today we have a generation

of children who assume that, because a doctor prescribed opiate-based pills to

someone they know, how bad could it be? The addiction that follows regular,

unsupervised use requires two things that are difficult to obtain – a lot of money and

a never-ending prescription. So these unfortunate victims migrate sideways into

heroin – both cheap and easily obtained.

We need to get ahead of this one, folks. We need to support our governor, our

legislature, our police department, and our neighbors, in taking this epidemic

seriously. Like most of you, I have taken opioids – took them for two knee

replacements and a shoulder replacement. And without them, I couldn’t have done

the rehab. When I signed on for the operation, I asked my doctors about the threat

of addiction and was told that about 3% of patients in my situation developed a

dependence. When it came time to wean myself off the pain meds, it turned out to be

pretty easy.

I’ve asked myself why this wasn’t a problem for me, and I think it pretty much

comes down to the concept of education. First of all, that film about heroin addiction

back in the fifth grade educated the tar out of me. And talking to my doctors about

the odds of slipping into long term casual usage served to make me mindful of each

pill I took – the why and when of each pill, and the costs to my health of each pill.

Declaring myself done with the whole thing was a relief.

There is some other good news on this front. Police departments all over the

country are starting to treat addicts as victims rather than criminals – in fact, one

man largely credited with being one of the first to take this attitude is Brandon Del

Pozo, the new police chief of Burlington Vermont (there’s that little state again). Del

Pozo, and suddenly a whole passel of other police chiefs as well, are trying to decide,

case-by-case , whether addicts are a threat to society or to themselves. At what point

can we avoid a threat to public safety by helping the addict with treatment rather

than incarceration?

This one ain’t easy, folks. But getting ahead of it is what it’s all about. Adding police

officers and cars to arrest and imprison those who are addicted is closing the barn

door just in time to burn it down. We need to educate our children and ourselves.

Opioids are here to stay. The question is – are our children going to be here to stay

as well?

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