It’s time for new approaches to the opioid and heroin crisis

It’s time for new approaches to the opioid and heroin crisis
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More Americans are dying from drug overdoses than ever before. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that our old ideas for combatting drug abuse just aren’t working. The heroin and opioid epidemic is a national crisis that affects all of us, and that means all of us need to get in the game. It’s time to start addressing the disease of addiction by promoting new ideas on prevention and treatment instead of just sending people to jail.

Combatting this epidemic starts with conversations at home around kitchen tables, in classrooms, and on practice fields. Education is our best tool to help people stay off of drugs. We should each take responsibility for teaching our kids the dangers of heroin and opioid use and be on the lookout for signs that our kids are using drugs. Schools, libraries and police departments can aid in this effort by providing materials and training for these difficult discussions. It also means keeping an eye on the medications our family members are prescribed and taking unused medications to an approved take-back program. State and local governments can help by expanding drug takeback programs and getting the word out on programs that already exist.

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We also need a commitment from industry leaders and doctors. I hear horror stories all the time about high school athletes who become addicted to opioids or heroin after suffering an injury. In fact, nearly 80 percent of Americans using heroin reported misusing prescription opioids first. We need to engage our well-meaning doctors with efforts to curb the opioid epidemic. That’s why I worked across the aisle last year to include my bill, the Opioid Review Modernization Act, in the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act. The law encourages pharmaceutical companies to use anti-addiction properties in new medications, and it directs the FDA to come up with a curriculum to share with doctors on the dangers of overprescribing.

We can educate all we want, but we can’t win this fight without also cracking down on the people who are pedaling this garbage to our kids. Our national leaders should allocate the funding necessary to crack-down on drug dealers. Local leaders in particularly high-traffic areas should apply for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) designation. The HIDTA designation brings additional local, state and federal resources to your area to help crack-down on dealers and provides more help in keeping people off of drugs in the first place. I worked to get my district, the Hudson Valley of New York, a HIDTA designation, and it has been a huge help in stopping drug dealers and preventing people from becoming addicted.

Prevention can’t be the only solution. Many Americans already suffering from addiction simply don’t know how to find help and turn their lives around. We need a strategy that improves access to lifesaving treatment and medications like narcan. Throwing low-level offenders in jail only perpetuates the cycle of addiction and incarceration instead of treating and preparing people for productive lives in the community. We should give our law enforcement officers more discretion in dealing with people with addictions. There are pilot programs across the country that allow our police to do that – and they’re working. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs in Gloucester, Mass., and Seattle give police officers the chance to take people with addictions directly to treatment instead of booking them into the criminal justice system. People who were sent to recovery as part of these programs were almost 60 percent less likely to be rearrested. We should recreate programs like these nationwide and tailor them to local needs. Based on the success of these programs, I introduced the Keeping Communities Safe Through Treatment Act to help expand them. My bill would create grant funding to allow more police departments across the country to try out this new strategy to cut down on repeat offenders.

If this strategy is going to work, our recovery centers have to focus on whole-person rehabilitation that helps people live a healthier life from top to bottom. Studies show that the best recovery programs help people get back on their feet by finding work and housing. If we want people to stop using for good, we need them to have long-term stability and focus – and these programs provide it.

If we want things to get better for our families and communities, we have to throw out our old playbook and come up with new approaches to the heroin and opioid crisis. I look forward to continuing my work on this and hope that our communities will commit to thinking big and working as a team to combat this problem. Addiction is not only a criminal justice challenge – it’s a public health crisis. We need to start treating it that way.

Maloney represents New York’s 18th District.