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Opinion: Time to stop punishing and begin treating addiction - The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tom Synan  |  Opinion contributor

The United States has set another record for overdose deaths with 93,331. That's not just a number; each digit represents a person, an American lost. It represents mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and other loved ones left behind. Their grief can't be quantified by the statistics.

The addiction epidemic continues its annual destruction, costing lives and billions of dollars to the U.S. economy.  No doubt the impact of COVID-19 has played a role in the increase but this has been in the making for decades with years of warnings, cries for help and change, failed policies and ideologies. 

Even though the alarm had been sounded by many about the rise of fentanyl and the need to urgently counter its flow into the U.S., fentanyl was allowed to become a staple in the drug supply not in just one town, state or region, but all across the country.

Even though parts of the U.S. were being ravaged by fentanyl, others parts did not heed the warnings. We could only watch as fentanyl continues to spread across the country, reading reports of how communities are responding instead of learning what is already being done, being proactive, planning, then being prepared. Although we prepared for natural disasters, galvanized as a country around Polio and now COVID to do all we can from stopping the spread and death, we do not do the same with addiction.

Fentanyl is a major factor to the astonishing number of overdoses and deaths. But it is not just our failure to be responsive to the ever evolving drug trade. As slow as our response to fentanyl has been, our ideology about addiction, steeped in decades of beliefs and opinions, not facts, has become the single biggest enabler of addiction. 

It is also our reluctance as a society to recognize, acknowledge and be willing to change how we respond to addiction. We are quick to blame those addicted and shamelessly slow to own up to our own shortcomings that play a role in the ever rising deaths and continuation of an addiction epidemic.

With ever-growing overdoses, the spread of fentanyl across the U.S. and record-setting death rates every year, we as a country hold tightly onto the notion that we can punish addiction out of someone, teach them a lesson, give them the "carrot or the stick" and that will cure them of their addiction. We believe that somehow punishment will override what science recognizes as an actual mental and physical condition. As a country, we lead drug policy with the opinion addiction is more sin, than science.

We have been doing this for over 70 years. Since 1999, nearly 1 million Americans have died from overdoses. The belief we can punish addiction, ignore it or somehow believe that one does not impact the many has not worked and will not work. That way of thinking only leads to more addiction and death.

There are many innovations to responding to addiction, calls for drug reform policies, even some shifts in ideology. But overall we still hold tightly to the way we have always done it, not giving reforms or new programs time to take hold. It seems the only time we act urgently is when we keep doing the same thing over and over again.

We should ask ourselves: Is the loss of 93,000 Americans enough for us to say it is time to stop punishing addiction and begin treating it as a mental, medical health condition? Would the loss of 100,000 be the number that finally upsets us all and not just those who have lost loved ones? Where is our line in the sand? How many deaths will it take before our leaders stand up and say it's time to change how we deal with addiction?

This is not about what programs or initiatives we should try. What is being done here or there. As noble as all of those are, we cannot make the progress we need until as a country we change our ideology towards addiction. Old, failed policies cannot not be how we lead. Stigma cannot be our mantra. Blaming the addicted and afflicted for our own contributions to the problem is not a solution. 

As the report of another record of overdose deaths comes out and another president visits an area hit so hard by those records, it just seems like the right time to ask when is enough enough for us to realize maybe we should be questioning our own beliefs. 

Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan is a member of Hamilton County Heroin Coalition.