US Governors Want You to View Drug Treatment in a New Way

March 17, 2014

One of the most difficult obstacles that those struggling with drug abuse issues face before seeking help at addiction treatment centers is the public stigma surrounding addiction. For decades, popular opinion stated that drug use was a self-destructive choice that people voluntarily made. There was very little sympathy in this conception of substance abuse, and extremely punitive measures were enacted through laws and police enforcement policies that did nothing to drop recidivism rates of users upon release.

That attitude has shifted. It is no longer publicly acceptable to vilify substance abusers for what is commonly accepted as a health issue, and government policies that imprison and punish rather than treat and support those who struggle with drug abuse are quickly losing ground with state legislators across the country.

As some states struggle with increased drug usage rates, the desire for more comprehensive drug policies that focus on treatment over incarceration is shared not only by the public, but by the majority of governors across the U.S. According to their recent comments at a forum held in Washington, D.C., the time for more compassionate drug policies is here.

A public health issue

As evidence for how pervasive the shifting mindset on substance abuse is across the U.S., Vermont public radio station WAMC reported on the National Governors Association Health and Human Services Committee’s recent forum on drug use, titled “Battling an Epidemic: State Effects to Combat Prescription Drug Abuse.” The discussion was a small part of the annual meeting of the country’s governors and primarily focused on rates of OxyContin use, but several politicians were clear in their comments that the person should not be at fault and punished as such when it comes to substance abuse.

When discussing the rise in OxyContin abuse since its legalization for prescriptions in 2000, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley mentioned that physicians need to be held accountable as well.

“I hate to say this because I am a physician, but it’s a lack of attention on the part of prescribers on how you handle that patient,” Bentley told the forum, WAMC reported. “Do you need to give a patient [such large doses]? No. There’s just no one that needs that.”

Vermont is currently experiencing a surge in heroin and opiate abuse, and while Governor Peter Shumlin admitted that strict enforcement of penalties was the norm in the past, those policies are not suited for today’s world.

We tend to think about heroin addiction and opiate addiction as maybe less sympathetic than we would to other diseases,” Shumlin told the forum. “You know, if your mom and your dad smoked cigarettes and they get cancer we throw everything into it. We don’t necessarily bring the same compassion and the same approach to this disease, and it is a disease. One of the things governors need to do is start taking about this. We have to do better.”

Doing better in Vermont

It can be easy for politicians to make promises and hide behind their words, but Shumlin has taken steps to increase the opportunities for treatment in his state. The Vermont Department of Health explained that opiate addiction is a public health problem that requires a response based on medical evidence.

The state has opened a dedicated phone line that connects those struggling with substance abuse to systems of support such as community treatment centers and counseling. Vermont also sponsors seven private medical practices to support those looking for help from physicians.

As Vermont and other governors explained, the only way out of a drug problem is to seek outside assistance. Facilities across the country are there to help and more are opening every day.

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