Submitted by Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor.
Drug abuse and addiction is an issue which grips and weakens communities in Pierce County and around the nation. The presence and extent of addiction in families and its impact on public places should makes it impossible to deny or ignore. Natural and synthetic opioid drugs are eating away at the lives of our friends and families; ruining our neighborhoods and public spaces.
I saw some of that damage this last New Years Eve. I was out with one of our patrol units and we were called to a parking lot where a young man had died in his car.
He sat slumped behind the wheel for hours until someone called 911. He had overdosed on pain meds. He would not see the New Year. He one of tens of thousands of people – about 64,000 in America last year – 100’s in Pierce County alone – who die from an overdose of heroin and opioid drugs. And hundreds of thousands of others spend their time dope-sick or sleepwalking through life half awake and hopeless; wrecking their lives and their families. They pass out on sidewalks. They scatter used needles everywhere.
This is not our first drug plague. Some of you remember our local Methademic during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. This area was one of the meth lab capitols of America. Meth ruined and meth ended too many lives.
But communities in Pierce County took note, got angry, got educated and got organized. With community members, law enforcement and legislators working together, we had some real success pushing it back. We did not eliminate meth but we did reduce its production and use.
There are similarities and differences between the Methademic and the Opioid plague.
Both drugs are addictive and hard to escape. Both cause devastation. Both ruin users and communities. But our current opioid plague did not originate in home-grown labs or street culture. It came from a cynical, uncontrolled and reckless corporate culture. It was largely due to a twisted choice to place dollars ahead of decency. Pharmaceutical companies and distributors and even some physicians got the opiate ball rolling.
They sent hundreds of thousands of dosages of addictive pain meds even to small towns. They did so with a straight face. They kept churning out quantities of pills as if every other person in America needed buckets of pain meds.
As manufactured opioids became more expensive, addicts switched to heroin. And now, we are receiving both heroin and synthetic opioids from cartels in Mexico and China. They now produce Fentanyl and Car-fentanyl which can kill users in minute doses. We even have to worry about these especially high-octane opioids being weaponized by domestic and foreign terrorists.
Not good news for the future – right? Well, I believe that the future is not something that just rolls over us. It is something that we can help shape and direct.
I wear a badge. So some may assume that my solution to opioids consists exclusively of arrest and jail. Actually, it is more complex than that. I do indeed, believe that law enforcement is necessarily part of the solution. But I believe that prevention and treatment need to be two-thirds of the equation.
Why keep up the enforcement efforts? Because addiction is inevitably tied to crime: to violent crime, to property crime and to crimes of recklessness and neglect. But we also need to keep law enforcement involved because it is through arrest that many people get off of drugs and are offered a path into treatment. We cannot “arrest our way out of this problem.” But we can use lawful arrest as a means to leverage addicts otherwise unable or unwilling to face their problem and get some help.
Arrested people often find themselves in front of Drug Court here in Pierce County. Arrest brings medical evaluation and detox in jail followed by Court supervision. And soon, we will begin a program in the Pierce County Jail involving the availability of addiction blocking medications. Addicted inmates can volunteer to receive this treatment and we will facilitate their continued treatment upon release.
I wear a badge, but I believe that we need to invest far more in treatment programs and facilities. I am tired of people dealing with problems like addiction and mental illness and homelessness by dismissively saying “just let the cops handle it.”
These same people then want to blame law enforcement when things don’t work out perfectly. This approach is morally irresponsible and too often proves dangerous to first responders.
As we work to integrate prevention, enforcement and treatment, we need to do some ethical house cleaning. We need to stop pretending that opioids are someone else’s problem. Averting our eyes does not work.
We need to do the difficult work which our colleagues in Public Health call “harm reduction.” But sometimes efforts at “harm reduction” end up enabling addiction. We cannot make drug abuse so comfortable that addicts remain addicted and communities view ravaged lives as somehow acceptable.
I remember the young man who overdosed in his car in a cold, dark parking lot on New Years Eve. We lifted him out of the driver’s seat and onto the gurney. It was depressing as hell. Within the next couple of hours his family would be notified and their lives would be crushed.
This is kind scene we see repeated too often. A kind of slow-motion opioid-driven slaughter. This is not someone else’s problem. We cannot ignore or enable it and “just let the cops handle it.” Let’s find ways to slow it down, to lift people out of it and turn them around.
It won’t be easy or cheap or even comfortable. But it’s the right thing to do. For those who are addicted but also for all of the rest of us too.