Community needs to talk about opiate use

We need to talk. Often those words announce a difficult but necessary conversation among partners, families or friends about the health of their relationship. Today I use them to start such a conversation among neighbors about the health of our community.

Namely, we need to talk about the epidemic of opiate use and addiction that presents a real and present danger to our community. If you don’t know of an individual or family that has been ravaged by this epidemic, you will soon. Respect for privacy and the unfortunate and misplaced stigma toward any behavioral health struggle conspire to cloak the current extent of this epidemic, which enables our denial of its reality and reach.

I implore you to break out of the comfort of that denial and join any one of the efforts being undertaken to fight back.  I am not an expert on addiction, brain science, infectious diseases, or illicit drug trafficking, but I know people who are.  From them I have learned that any solution to this community problem must be three pronged: providing prevention, treatment and reduction of harm. This week I will focus on prevention.  

Can we as a community pledge to do everything in our collective power to create awareness and understanding of the potential harm of these substances? I urge you to take the first step toward that goal, by learning about the science and history of these substances, so you can have a cogent and health-based discussion with the persons important to you.  

For example, the literature on the national opiate epidemic notes the frequency of the path from prescription painkiller use to heroin addiction. While we pledge to educate our youth about the dangers of heroin, are our own medicine cabinets stocked with “medicines” that pose the same hazards? For clarity of understanding and hence, messaging, we are uniquely fortunate to count among our neighbors several experts in the health and psychology fields who are willing and able to share their knowledge and understanding.  These include Addiction Specialist Dr. Sarah Spencer, KPC Associate Professor of Psychology Brian Partridge, and Neuroscientist Dr. Linda Chamberlain.  To help share their expertise, an information exchange is being formed to share their past presentations, as well as other resources such as documentaries and government statistics. Contact me at HomerExchange@gmail.com for more information about this effort to share materials. 

Prevention information is useless if it is not shared with the persons about to make a decision to use opiates. We cannot afford to make the mistake that only certain youth or adults will succumb to this problem. I agree wholeheartedly with and thank high school student Mina Gherman, who wrote a compelling public letter pleading us to realize that all her peers are susceptible to this epidemic, not just those deemed “at risk.”

State and national statistics bear out her message. The urgency of helping all our youth resist these substances cannot be overstated.  The special vulnerability of the teenage and young adult brain to neurotoxins like alcohol, nicotine and drugs increases the likelihood of their later dependency, in direct correlation to their age when first using them.  Moreover, the special susceptibility of the adolescent brain to peer influence, risk taking and decision making based on emotion creates a fertile field for experimentation with controlled substances. Let’s try to guide their choices with clear, consistent and health-based information that leaves no question as to where our community stands on opiate use. 

One of our greatest strengths as a community is how much we care about our youth. Let’s put that strength to effective use, as we talk to them early and often about these substances.  As we debate the issue of commercial marijuana regulation, for example, it is especially incumbent upon us to clearly distinguish between cannabis and the highly addictive and potentially lethal opiates. I don’t know that marijuana is a gateway drug, but its acceptance and normalization can certainly pose a social gateway to other drug use if we as a community don’t clearly demark a line of harmfulness and unacceptability. 

To further this conversation, I propose formats that enhance dialogue more than unilateral presentations. When some of us presented about this issue last April, the experts’ information was valuable, but the dialogue generated by questions, comments, tears and hugs afterward was especially powerful and moving. It reminded me that our community is rich in compassion, connectedness, creativity and work ethic. Perhaps we can tap into those currencies of social change to create a truly community-based effort. 

For example, we could hold small community gatherings where we watch a video and hold group discussions afterward. Think about your smaller circles of association within our greater community, such as congregations, sports programs, civic organizations or trade cohorts. 

I would be glad to come to your gatherings to help raise awareness and connect your group to the materials available to continue such discussions. These existing circles of caring and connectedness in our community are built on common values and trust. What better places to begin this prevention effort?  Please feel free to contact me at HomerExchange@gmail.com to share your thoughts, questions or suggestions. 

Ginny Espenshade has worked in juvenile justice for 20 years as executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court.  

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