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In the Battle Against Opioids, Saving Lives Should Come First

As a New York State Trooper was handcuffing me at our State Capitol, I told him, “I lost my son. This is for him.”

Jeff was an amazing kid, a chef, who was 28 when he died of a heroin overdose. I was willing to face arrest at an Albany protest because our elected officials know what they can do to save lives like Jeff’s — including providing resources for longer rehabilitation and after-care, freeing doctors to prescribe addiction treatment medications, and setting up safe injection sites in the event of relapse.

But they don’t. Instead, they stick to old-fashioned rehabilitation models that aren’t working.

When Jeff was alive, no one told us how hard it is to beat an opioid addiction. No one offered us Suboxone or other proven treatments. No one told us about Naloxone, which can reverse an overdose. Give him “tough love,” treatment providers told us, so we did.

Doctors are able to prescribe unlimited amounts of opioid pills for pain, but few of them understand the addiction this creates, nor offer help for it. And none are allowed to prescribe Suboxone or Methadone, which help overcome opioid dependence, without a specialized waiver.

Addiction is an illness. Any patient should be able to say, “I have an addiction,” and hear a doctor say, “I have medicine that can help you.” It should be that simple.

After much struggle, Jeff finally got inpatient treatment, but our private insurance tried to send him home after two weeks. He begged to stay. When he got another week, I naively thought that was all he needed. But with less than four weeks of treatment, only one in 10 avoids relapse. No one told me that.

Jeff was heroin-free for 20 months — more than a year and a half — before he died. I had stopped worrying. Looking back, I can see he tried to tell me he needed a lot more support than three weeks of rehabilitation. He had real knowledge to share, and we should have listened.

If I could have my son back and give him a safe place to use without dying, I would certainly do it.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo touts addressing the opioid epidemic aggressively. One of his recent boasts was a proposal to have insurance companies provide 21 days of care — up from 14 dayscurrently. But under 28 days, the success rate is still one in 10. So Cuomo’s action wouldn’t even move the needle.

Cuomo could take real action to save lives, to end this “raging grassfire” as he likes to call it. He could open safer consumption sites, increase harm reduction funding, and expand access to the medicines that treat addiction. Instead he continues to support failing old-school styles of treatment, most of which require abstinence from all substances.

That isn’t possible for everyone. Keeping people healthy and alive needs to be our priority. They cannot recover six feet under.

As another member of our group was being walked out in cuffs, the state trooper guiding her spoke in her ear. “My family has really been impacted by addiction,” the trooper said. “I feel for you all, and I appreciate what you’re doing.”

The opioid crisis affects us all. These are our family and friends. We need to change systems if we want to save their lives.

Small steps like the ones Cuomo takes, and other half-measures all around the country, aren’t enough. Overdose deaths continue to rise as elected officials try to sway public perception that things are getting better. It’s not better.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

This is such a time. We can’t be concerned if a tactic that saves lives is controversial, or because the message is uncomfortable. We have to prioritize saving lives. We must move forward with courage.

Alexis Pleus is the founder of TruthPharm, a nonprofit that raises awareness and reduces the stigma associated with substance use disorders. Her story appeared first at OurFuture.org.

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