Current statistics show Essex county as having the second highest rates of opioid-related overdose deaths in the Commonwealth. Those of us working in Lawrence and the surrounding towns have witnessed this modern plague first hand. Addiction presents differently in each person it tortures, from clear signs such as swollen and infected injection sites to well-dressed professionals who lead seemingly stable lives.
Right now, fentanyl and heroin are running through our streets and are selling at disturbingly low prices, making the drugs attainable to nearly anyone. They are being manufactured and laced with other substances, making overdose all the more likely. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent,” (2016). Those buying the substances are often unaware of what they are actually ingesting or injecting.
Intravenous drug users (IDUs) and other substance users are at risk for a lot more than overdosing, including contracting communicable diseases, being victim to violent crimes, sexual abuse, becoming homeless, and living with food insecurity. Addiction causes many people to lose sight of their responsibilities and disrupt interpersonal relationships, leaving them without the resources to stay indoors. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “One in five people who experienced homelessness on a given night in 2012 also struggled with chronic substance use problems,” (Stand, 2013). Additionally, substance users are more likely to commit crimes related to drug use, including theft, sex work, and drug dealing in order to fund their addiction, as well as driving under the influence and other crimes that endanger their community.
There is a significant economic cost of addiction. Nationally, it costs our healthcare system around $11 billion, having an overall economic impact of approximately $193 billion. Other costs include, “$120 billion in lost productivity, mainly due to labor participation costs, participation in drug abuse treatment, incarceration, and premature death” and “$61 billion in criminal justice costs, primarily due to criminal investigation, prosecution and incarceration, and victim costs.” This only accounts for the use of illicit substances and is not including addictions to other substances such as alcohol or tobacco.
The social costs are devastating, with addiction carrying a nearly debilitating societal stigma. A history of addiction, with all of its compounding side effects, can hinder people from obtaining gainful employment, stable housing, and from healing their personal relationships. Rather than an illness, addiction is often seen as a character flaw. Because of this, many of those suffering often choose not to seek treatment when they have the option.
Addiction alters the brain’s chemistry, making sheer will power an all but useless weapon to fight it. According to a Harvard Medical School publication, “Addictive drugs provide a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine,” (2009). Users then become chemically dependent on the drugs to maintain that level of pleasure.
Recognizing addiction as an illness makes treating it infinitely easier and, in areas where this is the consensus, more and more people who need help seek it. Treating those who are suffering with dignity and understanding is the first step to attacking the addiction epidemic and becoming a healthier community.