Forum: Addicts need help, not jail

BAR HARBOR — Opioid addiction must be treated as a chronic disease, not a crime or moral failing, if its toll on individuals and society is to be significantly reduced, specialists in the field said at a recent community forum at The Jackson Laboratory.

People struggling with addiction need treatment and support services, not blame, said Elissa Chesler, an associate professor at the lab who studies addiction in mouse models.

Citing the way people with cancer are treated, she said, “You wouldn’t give someone a certificate and send them on their way after one cancer-free screening. You examine them regularly. But that’s not what we do with addiction today.

“We have to look at the factors that make individuals go down that path, like their underlying biology and differences including stress and social networks,” Chesler said. “Understanding that can help destigmatize addiction and change the focus to getting the assistance needed to recover.”

Panelists at the forum, titled the Behavior and Biology of Addiction, agreed on the need to develop robust treatment and counseling programs in cooperation with law enforcement.

A collaborative approach in Gloucester, Mass., called the Angel Program was heralded as a model. It encourages people with addiction problems to go to the police station to ask for help. Rather than being arrested or jailed, they are guided to “angels” at a local hospital who connect them with the appropriate treatment and counseling services.

Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane said his office is working on a similar initiative called Project Hope.

“The difference is that health [insurance] covers this in Massachusetts, but not here,” he said.

“Unfortunately, our jail is the largest detox center in Hancock County. But we don’t have counseling or services to identify the root of what’s causing people pain and why they’re using.

“I know they don’t belong in jail, and we’re scurrying to find resources because I really believe if someone comes to us and we can’t help them, we may never get the chance again, and they can become a statistic,” Kane said.

Panelist Jonathan Fellers, a psychiatrist at Maine Medical Center, said people who are addicted to drugs and find themselves in jail need to be offered treatment there “so they can start their recovery and come out without cravings.”

“Treatment works for people with opioid addiction, but we don’t have enough options. We spend $700 billion on addiction, but only a small percentage of that on treatment. It’s penny wise and pound foolish. We simply can’t arrest our way out of this problem.

“It’s miraculous and amazing to see people who succeed and get everything back to lead wonderful lives,” Fellers said. “There’s a lot of hope in that.”

Daniel Johnson, executive director of the Acadia Family Center, said, “We need to help our primary care doctors get more involved in care and solutions.”

Chuck Hewitt, executive vice president and chief operation officer at The Jackson Laboratory, moderated the panel discussion on opioid addiction. He said there is no question that it is a disease.

“It can be treated, but not easily or casually or without commitment. We need to combine treatment with love, compassion and acceptance and create connections with each other.”

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