Experts fail to address why heroin addicts of today are treated more humanely than crack addicts of the ‘80s and ‘90s
By Mikel Holt
The most relevant question about the national opioid epidemic was never posed and thus never answered by panelists during a breakfast program on the pandemic.
The panel discussion highlighted a program sponsored by BizTimes at the Italian Community Center Thursday titled: “The Opioid Crisis—Understanding Its Impact.” The event also included the media company’s annual “Health Care Heroes” Awards.
But the question many African Americans have pondered was never posed, even though the answer was obvious: why is there a current national emphasis on the opioid epidemic, when there was silence and antipathy when crack invaded the Black community two decades ago?
And while the crack epidemic resulted in hundreds of thousands of African Americans being imprisoned, the media and politicians view opioid users as victims, versus criminals.
Panelist Kenneth Harris, Jr., PhD, a former Milwaukee police officer, came closest to answering the pertinent question when he asked why the debate today seemingly ignores accountability and instead focuses on victimhood by the opioid users.
Implicit in his statement was the overemphasis on imprisonment for crack users during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, while today’s users of heroin are treated as individuals with a health problem.
Ken Hartenstein, a counselor and head of an assisted treatment center, quickly rejected that assertion, declaring addicts are held accountable, although incarceration does little to solve the problem.
Treatment, whether counseling or medical intervention provide the long-term solution. (Harris, an African American and professor at Concordia University, told this reporter after the discussion that the inherent unfairness and hypocrisy of the two “solutions” go to a larger societal issue.)
Beth Dejongh, PHARM.D., a pharmacy instructor at Concordia, said medically based treatment offers hope for addicts, although there is a stigma attached by some who say, “we are trading one drug for another.” She also said the epidemic is touching more and more lives, and that the family of addicted users are also impacted.
Last year, nationally there were over 72,000 deaths from heroin usage. Opioid related deaths in Wisconsin are higher than the national average, with an overwhelming majority of addicts being White males, 22-30.
Dejongh placed much of the blame for the increase on the increase of prescribed opioids, which far too often lead to heroin use. Greater monitoring and training of medical personnel is essential to stemming the epidemic, she said.
Asked how the epidemic has impacted law enforcement, Harris said it has placed a strain on services, often tying up both police units and emergency medical personnel. “And in many cases, we don’t know the outcome,” which could help to humanize the scenario, he said.
“You can tie up half a district on one overdose case because it is treated as a homicide,” he explained. He recalled responding to several overdoes by the same person on the same day. Imagine how an officer views that scenario and the person. Is he a victim of his own self-indulgence, or someone who should be treated differently?
And, because of the lack of communication between officers and the medical community, the officer never sees the other side. “Did that person survive? Let us know the outcome; it would give us motivation.”
Harris also suggested making naloxone (also known as “Narcan”), a medication used to counter the effects of opioid overdoses, more readily available to the public.
Hartenstein suggested interception as a way to stem the tragedy. Family members and friends hold the key to that process. And then it is up to the addict to admit his or her sickness.
“Recovery is a personal journey.” The Health Care Heroes breakfast provided an opportunity to honor individuals and organizations who have impacted their communities and networks through health related services.
This year’s honorees were:
Advancement in Health Care: Parameswaran Hari,
Medical College of Wisconsin;
Behavior Health: C. Frederick Geitfuss II, Grand Avenue
Club; Robert Gouthro, Medical College of Wisconsin;
Robin Monson-Dupuis, Aurora Behavioral Health Care;
Community Service: Medical College of Wisconsin
Cancer Center Community Advisory Committee; Ascension
Wisconsin, Be of Good Heart program; David Nelson,
Executive Leadership: Coreen Dicus-Johnson, Network
Health; Patricia Metropulos, Kathy’s House;
Health Care Staff: Sheila Dodds, Children’s Hospitalof Wisconsin;
Nurse: Mariya Gozenpud, IndependenceFirst Inc.;
Julie Katrichis, Milwaukee Health Dept.; Brianne Ortega,
Waukesha County Public Health;
Physician: Frank Downey, Aurora St. Luke’s; Adrian
Nazir; Taha Medical Center; Ronald Schulgit, Ascension
Medical Group-Racine; and
Volunteer: Dawn Panfil, Hair & Body Solutions Salon and Spa
Lifetime Achievement: Richard Aster, Blood Center of Wisconsin