Altruism amid an addiction

My fervent hope, as we navigate our imperfect lives, is that the angels of our better nature shall guide us to goodness and mercy. That we seek wisdom and inspiration from the journeys of others. That we resist the demons of our darker nature. That we be introspective enough to recognize when we succumb, honest enough to confess and strong enough to redeem ourselves.

This is also my manifesto for addicts, policymakers and candidates amid our imperfect struggle against drug abuse.

Now that Kentucky finally has a heroin bill we can live with, it’s time to define a bit of the demagoguery that has doomed the war on drugs. The debate in Frankfort was replete with it, thanks primarily to Republican Sen. John Schickel, a retired law enforcer from Northern Kentucky, who opposed the compromise measure, which includes the local option of a needle-exchange program.

“We talk about education and messaging to our children,” he said. “What kind of crazy, mixed message does this send?”

Kids informed enough to ask about needle exchanges are smart enough to understand the endorsement of Kentucky drug control policy chief Van Ingram. “It starts to get a public health connection with someone who has checked out of the public health system and say: ‘Here’s your clean needles, I noticed you’ve got an abscess on your arm, I can help you with that. If you’re concerned about Hepatitis C, we can get you tested. If you’re concerned about HIV, we can get you tested. And if you get tired of living this way, come talk to me and we can talk about some treatment options for you.’”

Kids are certainly smart enough to understand how needle exchanges program keep playgrounds and the public safer.

Do they promote or condone drug abuse? Research says no, they recognize that an addict, especially one in withdrawal, will shoot up with a used needle if a clean one is unavailable.

Isn’t providing a clean needle in exchange for a dirty one the very definition of enabling? Not if someone is going to shoot up regardless. If an addict doesn’t overdose while using a clean needle from an exchange, it enables him or her not to become otherwise disabled or diseased.

According to research cited by bill sponsor Rep. John Tilley, Democrat of Christian County, a needle exchange participant is five times more likely than other addicts to enter treatment.

Kentucky’s heroin bill took effect March 25, immediately upon Gov. Steve Beshear’s signature, due to an emergency clause. Days later, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence struggled to reconcile his opposition to needle exchanges with a temporary allowance in Scott County amid a surge in HIV infections due to intravenous drug use. He made the exception because of “a public health emergency.”

Memo to Pence: For years, public health experts have been calling the absence of needle exchanges a public health emergency, given the staggering risks and costs of hepatitis C and HIV.

Tilley, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee cemented the compromise during trips between Frankfort and their hometown of Hopkinsville. Three Jefferson County Democrats made extraordinary efforts: Sen. Morgan McGarvey, Rep. Denny Butler and Rep. Joni Jenkins, Shively’s gift to Kentucky, who lost her nephew to heroin. Wes, a member of the 2002 Little League World Series Champions.

“Three years ago, I thought people who became addicted to drugs are bad people, who were poor of character, who came from bad environments. But I will tell you now, I’ve learned the hard way, that any one of us are at risk of someday becoming addicted – especially to opiates. Mental health professionals tell me it’s a roll of the dice,” she said.

“I know people wanna punish people. And I will tell you, the young man who first sold heroin to my nephew, I hated him. I wanted him to pay. But you know what? He paid in December because he died of an overdose. He was completely disenfranchised from his family. There was notice in the paper, there was no funeral for people to grieve for him. And I thought that I would feel good that he finally got his punishment – and I just felt sad.” •