After some very difficult recent years, many of us are discouraged by the constant stream of bad news about the opioid addiction epidemic. Let’s review some recent milestones:
- 300 families a day lose a loved one to accidental overdose
- Accidental overdose is the leading killer of people aged 18-45 (per a report by Families Against Fentanyl)
- New synthetic opioids like nitazines can be more poisonous than fentanyl and have spread throughout the U.S.
There is an unexpected bright spot in the ongoing opioid epidemic, and it is the progress made by corrections industry.
Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Harm Reduction in the Corrections Settings
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is the practice of prescribing medication that reduces physical and mental cravings for opioids and alcohol. The most-commonly prescribed medication is buprenorphine, known by its brand-names like Suboxone, Subutex, and Sublocade. Newly recovered folks who take this medication, and combine it with counseling, can recover successfully much of the time.
Thanks to changes in laws that allow more prisoners to access Medicaid in many states, access to MAT programs is now benefiting incarcerated individuals who want to recover from a substance use disorder (SUD).
According to Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, “Treating substance abuse disorder in prison and jails is a smart move for our safety and the health of our nation.” He made this comment when he announced that, by summer, all federal prisons will be offering medications to treat substance use disorder.
San Quentin Learns from Sweden to Reduce Stigma
Thanks to some very positive results at Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution in Chester, PA, a Scandinavian paradigm of treatment and rehabilitation is replacing the more traditional punitive corrections approach at California’s San Quentin prison.
The approach focuses on using mentorship and positive relationships between corrections officers and prisoners to facilitate an uplifting experience and result in a positive transformation of the offender to prepare them for success in the outside world. This approach has shown very effective in Scandinavian countries, like Norway and Finland.
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of San Quentin, perhaps the most recognizable prison in the nation, being transformed into largest center of rehabilitation, education, and training in California – and possibly the country.
According to California Governor Gavin Newsom, the transition will “completely reimagine what prison means.”
In the Public Sector, Prevention, Harm Reduction, and Stigma Reduction is Needed
In my book, The Opioid Epidemic, and in my public appearances, most of the solutions discussed fall into one of three categories: prevention, harm reduction, and stigma reduction.
When I’m speaking about prevention, I am focusing on spreading awareness that every use of an opioid can lead to a fatal overdose, a fact that has not nearly gotten the appropriate attention. Our high school-aged children in particular need to know that, as the DEA campaign says, “One Pill Can Kill.” Poisonous fentanyl and nitazines can also be found in any substance that is not from a licensed pharmacist, including counterfeit ADHD medication like Adderall or benzodiazepines like Xanax.
When it comes to harm reduction, we discuss necessary measures like providing Narcan® wherever it might reverse an overdose, and giving out fentanyl test strips to ‘at-risk’ populations. A more controversial harm reduction measure is providing the public with safe drug injection sites, where intravenous opioid users can be monitored non-judgmentally for a potential overdose. The results have been mixed, but safe injection sites have reduced fatal overdoses in some areas, like San Francisco.
The stigma of drug abuse has remained a huge barrier in reaching the people who need our help. The shame around having a substance use disorder is rooted in outdated thinking, and prevents people from seeing their addiction for what it is: a medical condition that is treatable just like diabetes. Prisons are showing more progress in this area than society ‘at large.’
Get Involved in the Solution to the Addiction Epidemic
If you want to learn more about the ongoing battle against drug addiction, follow groups like the National Institute of Drug Addiction (NIDA) for news and updates. If a loved one is using drugs, then reach out to the many drug and alcohol counselors who are trained to help. It’s always helpful to talk with a behavioral health professional about your specific situation, and the counselor will likely have insight and tools to help you take proactive steps to help yourself or your loved one. You can start by contacting The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association (SAMHSA) Treatment Locator, which is a toll-free number that is staffed 24/7. That line can be reached by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
If you are in California, you can contact Confidential Recovery, our treatment center in San Diego, at (619) 452–1200.
About the Author
Scott H. Silverman is one of nation’s the leading subject matter experts on addiction, having written The Opioid Epidemic and made countless public and media appearances to discuss the challenges we face as a society. He is the CEO of Confidential Recovery, an outpatient rehab in San Diego.