BY CHRIS RAINES
Like many parts of Western North Carolina, Madison County was hit hard by the prescription opiate epidemic. It was going on long before I took my first dose at the age of 17. I had fractured my spine, and at that time, my doctor had no problem writing prescriptions every month. Before I knew it, I’d been on prescription opiates for nearly two years. But then my doctor left the local clinic, and my new doctor decided that I didn’t need the drugs, so he cut me off cold turkey. Little did I know that this was only the beginning of a long and ruthless “war on opiates” that continues to be waged in Madison County to this day.
That was almost eight years ago, and at this point, many of us are beginning to realize that we, as a society, have made quite a few mistakes in attempting to deal with our drug problems. But accepting responsibility for those mistakes also means acknowledging their consequences — including the addiction epidemic that now plagues us. We have the potential to solve it, but so far, all we’ve succeeded in doing is creating a more crowded jail and putting further stress on our local court system.
I was in my second year of active addiction when the war on opiates began to be fought in Marshall, where I lived at the time. There were numerous arrests each week as the Sheriff’s Office made a big deal about “cleaning up the streets.”
Meanwhile, the local clinic decided to join the war effort. It began by adopting a new policy that sharply restricted the prescribing of opiates, along with a plan to wean current chronic pain patients off all narcotic pain meds.
But while cutting back on opiate prescriptions did make drugs harder to come by, it also caused prices — not to mention addicts’ desperation levels — to increase drastically. I don’t believe these tactics were well-thought-out.
Waging a criminal war on drugs merely pushes residents suffering from the disease of addiction further into isolation. The message coming from local law enforcement is, “We arrest and prosecute addicts.” And the combination of soaring drug prices and no recovery infrastructure only strengthens addicts’ demand for the drug. Worse yet, the increasing scarcity of prescription drugs means addicts are now being introduced to more dangerous and unpredictable alternatives, such as heroin. Local families are losing everything, and drug trafficking is on the rise.
It’s not my intention here to point fingers or cast blame. At the same time, however, I refuse to sit idly by as this illness continues to destroy my community. I refuse to watch my friends and family members get shoved into prisons or laid in their final resting place before their 25th birthday. And I refuse to be silent a moment longer waiting for us to come together and do what’s necessary to address this violent and destructive issue.
I understand that addiction isn’t confined to our community and that there will be many challenges to overcome before we see significant progress. But we have to start somewhere, and the time is now.
First, we need to learn what addiction is and how it works, and then rid ourselves of the ignorant falsehoods, stereotypes and stigmas we’ve created concerning addicts. We can no longer afford to view addiction through the rigid lens of criminal law. How can we expect to shed light on an issue if all we do is push its sufferers further into the shadows? The disease of addiction feeds on isolation, and as long as we criminalize and condemn addicts, we will never make any true progress in addressing the problem. In fact, our judgments only add more fuel to the fire.
Instead, let us reach out to those who are dealing with addiction. They are, after all, our sons, our daughters, our brothers and our sisters, and we should be offering them our love, our support, our understanding.
Remembering that we ourselves are not perfect, we must stand in humility rather than self-righteous judgment. Are we willing to openly admit our own shortcomings in order to close the gaps that keep us divided? Are we willing to come together in unity to tackle the problems that are too big for any one of us to face alone?
History is full of examples of what can be achieved when a community comes together in love for a common cause. United, we can share responsibility for our residents and the burdens that plague them. If we refuse to do so, we’re forcing them to rely on the resources found in bigger cities, which are already beginning to buckle under the strain of overload. Let’s lead by example, striving to create local resources that address addiction here at home.
I am now 25 years old, and I recently celebrated one year of recovery. I’m currently working to establish a grassroots nonprofit organization designed to provide local recovery resources for Madison County residents. It will be a pilot program aimed at creating a model that other small communities can easily implement. Follow Agape Community Recovery Resources on Facebook and Twitter. If you’re interested in helping out or have any questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Raines lives in Hot Springs.