Divided views on opioids – ‘worst drug crisis in American history’

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – As attendees of an “opioid crisis” town hall meeting called for response to criminal behavior and nuisances stemming from addiction, Senator Mike McGuire announced the imminent development of a $4.8 million local treatment center.

Held at the Sequoia Conference Center in Eureka on November 14, the well-attended community forum focused on what McGuire described as “the worst drug crisis in American history.”

Saying that “we’re ready  to advance solutions,” McGuire announced that a “results-driven new opioid addiction health center” will be opening in Humboldt County.

The announcement was met with applause but much of the audience commentary was on the social impacts of addition-driven behavior. Members of discussion panels repeatedly discouraged judgmental attitudes about opioid abuse, however.

Marlies Perez of the California Department of Health Care Services emphasized that “addiction is not a moral failing, it is a brain disease” and “we cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”

Perez said terms like “an individual with a substance abuse disorder” are replacing the term “addict” to reduce stigmatization.

Some audience members weren’t receptive to political correctness. A retail business owner said, “I try not to stigmatize,” but reported that an apparent addict be “treated just like anyone else” recently stole $360 worth of merchandise from his store and got away in “a run-down tweeker mobile.”

Noting that other business owners were in attendance, he asked what’s being done to “reduce the number of criminal addicts.”

“It’s important to recognize that unfortunately, individuals that are suffering from a substance abuse disorder … are not in their right minds, they need assistance,” Perez responded. “What we want to do is help prevent people from getting to that point.”

Another audience member said that “handing out those needles, making it easier for the addict” along with laws like Proposition 47, which reduces punishment levels for non-violent crimes, are “cushioning the rock bottom.”

He asked, “Shouldn’t programs be focused on accountability?”

Perez said that for many people, abuse of opioids began with prescriptions from doctors. She said those with abuse disorders include “senior citizens that go in for a hip surgery and come out with a pain medication and become addicted” and “soccer moms.” 

Later, a man in the audience asked McGuire “what can we do to really hammer the pushers?”

McGuire said options are limited due to the penalty reduction provisions of propositions 47 and 57. Adding legislative amendments to the laws and putting them before voters again will be “a challenge,” he continued.

“I think you’re copping out on that,” the man told him. McGuire cut him off, asking, “How am I copping out on that, sir?”

“You’re passing it off on the voters and I think you need to show leadership,” the man responded. “We’ve all come here and said, ‘hey, we don’t want to call them addicts,’ etcetera, etcetera … but come on, you guys are supposed to be the leaders here – act like it.”

“If you want me to stand here and B.S. you and say, yeah, a bill’s going to pass and we’re going to be able to fix this …” McGuire began, as the man rebutted.

McGuire talked over him, saying the low probability of amending the laws is merely “the truth.”

Other audience members commented on what they described as services-related impacts like “the proliferation of needles” and “halfway houses that become drug houses.”

There were also people in the audience who are involved in treatment of addiction and those who have seen its effects on family members.

Lisa Dugan is the director of the North Coast Regional Department of Child Support Services but she was at the forum to tell the story of her daughter, who became addicted  after being given prescription opioids by a friend and co-worker.

Dugan is also a moderator of the McKinleyville Community Watch online forum and she told the audience, “This isn’t a ‘them’ thing – all those people we call scumbags on McKinleyville Community Watch, they’re actually our children, they’re actually people who have been productive members of society.”

A summary of statistics on opioid overdose and prescription rates demonstrated that Humboldt County is acutely affected by addiction issues.

As related by McGuire at the forum’s start, Humboldt County’s overdose rate is five times greater than the state’s.

The county’s opioid overdose mortality rate is also five times that of the state’s, he reported, and the county’s opioid prescription rate is 80 to 90 percent higher than that of the statewide average.

“We have to be able to talk about this,” said County Supervisor Virginia Bass, who co-sponsored the town hall with McGuire. “These are obviously very painful conversations but they’re necessary.”

The multi-million dollar treatment center is expected to open in mid-2018 and McGuire told the audience that the community discussion has only started.

“We are going to be back in this room in February or March and we’re going to continue to address this crisis that has hit Humboldt County,” he said.


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