Support for addiction’s victims

To the Editor:

While law enforcement on this Island displays tremendous efforts toward arresting drug traffickers, are we as community doing all we can to address the serious problem of chemical addiction here on Martha’s Vineyard, especially among our adolescent population?

Currently working in the field of addiction, I have to say that arresting, detaining, and railroading the traffickers are only small measures toward resolving this area’s critical epidemic. Chronicle last Thursday night aired the research on the movement, “Commission for Oxycontin and Heroin” are attempting to make. Senator Tolman, the chairman for this committee, made grave yet true statements about addiction and accidental overdoses in our state.

During a five-year span from 2002 to 2005, there were 3,265 deaths related to accidental overdoses from opioid use — heroin and narcotic pain medication. The commission report can be found by Google: Recommendations of the Oxycontin and Heroin Commission, Commonwealth of Massachusetts November 2009. The report states addiction is a serious medical disorder creating a public health epidemic. A medical disorder, meaning in other words that it is not a moral issue, choice, or decision but a medical condition, or disease capable of fatality. I wonder how we, as a community, would be responding to this large number of deaths if they were from a flu outbreak. What kind of attention, help and support would we be doing for each other as a community?

Chemical addiction attacks regardless of socioeconomic status, race, religion, sex, or profession. The evidence of enormous devastation is powerfully alarming. In the year 2005, just over a billion dollars was spent on drug abuse addiction in the justice system, about 5.3 percent of the budget. Recently I had the opportunity to speak to 27 inmates at our Island’s jail regarding their aftercare. Out of the 27, there were 22 who raised their hands to the question, “How many… are here because of drug- or alcohol-related incidents?” To me, this is a waste of our taxpaying dollars. What if we took the daily amount of money spent on supporting those inmates and spent it on a jail diversion program to provide treatment instead? A facility to provide treatment for the medical condition of addiction disease offering physical, mental, emotional, social, financial, and spiritual support toward living sober? I wonder how much money would be better utilized by implementing a comprehensive jail diversion program for the first time non-violent offenders, with strategies to support long term treatment.

The commission report recommends one of the major points of reform needs to happen in our schools. I can support this, as with my knowledge and experience, most kids here are starting at ages 12 to 14. There is a strong movement in the addiction treatment field to provide the necessary education for licensed social workers, who currently fill the roles of counselors in our schools, to become certified and licensed in addiction education in order to provide our youth not only with accurate information regarding the devastation associated with this disease, but also provide safe attitudes and appropriate channels to seek help without punishment, or being expelled from school. This disease not only affects the individual, but also hits the family, schools, friends, neighbors, court system, hospitals, and cemeteries.

I had the good fortune of meeting Senator Tolman at a hearing for the purpose of collecting information on drug addiction. I spoke on behalf of our Island and our kids who find heroin use as socially acceptable as our adults find alcohol. In my addiction education classes, alcohol affects more areas of the brain than opiates, with THC being a setup for dementia and memory loss. All of which are devastating. I think with the stricter laws of alcohol, our youth has shifted to craftier ways of adolescent exploration and using chemicals without even knowing what they are doing to their brains. I want to personally thank Senator Tolman and his office staff for helping place quite a few of our youth in long term rehabs currently state funded and off-Island. On behalf of other parents, and myself, I thank you.

Addiction is a chemical brain imbalance with devastating repercussions where the attitudes absolutely need shifting. Narcotic pain medication changes the brain’s anatomy; it will setup a young person with physical abnormalities that need significant surgeries to become addicted. That is fact, and a true medical crisis. We as a community need to pull together, without judgment, and address this Island’s epidemic. I actually wonder if we are behind in the state’s requirements to provide drug education classes for our youth under the age of 16, who are involved in the court system with drug-related crimes. Can we please get up to speed and do the right thing? Isn’t that after all what we are expecting of them, to do the right thing?

Please help and show support by writing letters to your local newspaper, and let’s get the word out to provide healthier outcomes for our addicted population.

Kelly Wheeler RN, NAADAC

Vineyard Haven