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The struggle continues. The news at the end of last year that New Hampshire remains among the top three states in the country for overdose deaths was a blow to advocates who have worked so hard to tackle this crisis. But it also shows us that there is a need to embrace innovative approaches as a way out of this epidemic. These programs exist, and are being implemented throughout the country. Our state cannot be left behind.
As someone in recovery, who also has family members in recovery, I have seen firsthand the toll that the addiction epidemic is taking on our state. But I also know that the approach of arrest and incarceration is outdated and hugely counterproductive. Law enforcement may want to solve the problem, but locking up drug users who desperately need treatment will have no impact on the opioid deaths. In fact, often drug users released from jail or prison are at the highest risk of overdose death, because they have detoxed and their body is not ready to use the amount of heroin or fentanyl they used prior to incarceration. With powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl dominating New Hampshire’s drug trade, the risk is even greater,
There is a productive role that police can play, and it comes in the shape of programs such as LEAD — Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. The program recognizes that while we cannot stop everyone from using drugs, we can do our utmost to reduce the harm associated with drug use. Under LEAD, rather than arresting an individual for possessing drugs, law enforcement will connect the person with a LEAD case worker. The case worker will then work on a tailor-made plan to help the individual. Maybe the person needs to get into treatment, or perhaps they need recovery supports or housing. Often they could benefit from overdose prevention training or some sort of counseling. LEAD programs are a collaborative effort involving police, prosecutors, public defenders, public health experts and treatment officials. Whatever the need, the LEAD program can help.
It may sound touchy-feely, but studies have shown LEAD to be an unbridled success. A University of Washington report demonstrated that 58 percent of the individuals in the LEAD program do not get rearrested. Another evaluation showed that there was a significantly increased likelihood that individuals would obtain housing, employment and legitimate income after participating in the LEAD program. Health outcomes of participants also improve.
The program began in Seattle in 2011 but now has been replicated in a number of states, including West Virginia, North Carolina and Maine. Will New Hampshire open a LEAD program? As always, the challenge is funding. As a recent Dartmouth University report noted: ”[W]ith low spending on prevention and treatment programs, there are limited resources available statewide to effectively mitigate the risk of addiction.” What if we diverted money from programs like Granite Hammer that arrest individuals struggling with substance use disorder and spent it on programs that actually help people? Are we prepared to back the talk that we can’t arrest our way out of this up with action?
Fortunately, our federal representatives may be able to help. Sen. Maggie Hassan has signed onto letter in support of federal funding for LEAD, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has been the protagonist in an effort to secure this funding. In August, she used her position as the top Democrat on a powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations to secure $2.5 million in funding for a federal grant program. Shaheen has also been effusive in her support of the program in committee hearings. The Senate and House are currently negotiating a final spending bill, so we must keep our fingers crossed that Shaheen’s efforts bear fruit.
The opioid epidemic has cast light on a greater addiction epidemic that is a modern American tragedy, but we must fight back using all tools at our disposal. Innovative programs that are evidence-based and save lives are the way ahead and will hopefully be our way out of this terrible crisis.
— John Burns is director of SOS Recovery Community Organization, a collaborative of peers in recovery from substance misuse and their allies who work together to create safe spaces and peer-based recovery supports throughout Strafford County. He is also the founder of Families Hoping and Coping, a weekly support group in Dover and Portsmouth for family members and loved ones of those struggling with substance misuse.