The fight against opioid addiction is being fought on many fronts: President Donald Trump calls for the building of the wall, which he says will stop drugs from entering the country; the president has also endorsed tougher criminal sanctions for traffickers, including the death penalty for major ones. Twenty-four states are suing Purdue Pharma, developer of OxyContin, and other manufacturers of painkillers for their deceptive marketing practices. Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are getting ready to try Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Mexican cartel leader, on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and horrific acts of violence. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced plans to open four supervised drug-injection sites in the city; San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia have similar plans.
But will any of this really impact the epidemic that last year claimed 64,000 lives due to overdoses? Not likely.
They fail to address the truly urgent need in the fight against opioid abuse: repairing and expanding a treatment network that is severely underfunded, badly splintered and completely overwhelmed. No-one seems to be paying enough attention to the one thing that could truly make a difference: more and better treatment.
According to a 2016 report by the Surgeon General, only 1 in 10 people who needs drug and alcohol treatment gets it. There is a shockingly long waiting lists across the country. In West Virginia, the state with the highest rate of overdose deaths, there are only 171 beds for detox and 151 for longer-term residential treatment.
In New Hampshire, another hard-hit state, waits of four to six weeks are common for a publicly funded residential bed, while in Maine the primary detox facilities are the state’s 15 county jails.
In Springfield, Massachusetts, beds are in such short supply that those seeking help sometimes have to get arrested so that a judge can mandate them to a facility.
Dr. James Berry, the director of the addictions program at the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown, says hospital emergency rooms throughout the state “are flooded every day with scores of people who are desperate for treatment.” The courts are also overwhelmed. “I get calls from various courts asking for help in getting people into treatment because it’s not available in local communities.”
Is treatment really successful? According to the Surgeon General’s report, every dollar spent on treatment saves about $4 in health care costs and $7 in criminal costs.