President Trump: I’m on vacation, and I’ve just been handed advice by health officials that on paper looks excellent. But in real time, it’s not working. Just last week I read a report that in the next 10 years our nation is on a collision course to lose over 500,000 Americans to an accidental overdose of opioids.
Ritchie Farrell: Look at this way, Mr. President. During the Vietnam War, we lost 59,200 young Americans in a jungle over 20 years. But if we don’t do something drastic and the current forecast remain constant, we will lose a Vietnam War every 12 months for 10 years.
President Trump: How are we going to stop this from happening.
Ritchie Farrell: We have to hit it hard. We have to hit it from every angle imaginary. We have to treat the opioid epidemic like it is a war. We need a general who understands the battle and is not afraid to ruffle political feathers.
The heroin epidemic has become a multimillion dollar business. Private equity firms like New York’s Deerfield Management are throwing money into recovery centers. They invested $231.5 million into Recovery Centers of America, and RCA is charging $1,000 per day for a bed. We have to find a way to charge $200 per day and still allow investors to profit.
Just look at the past eight months in Florida. The Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force has arrested and charged 28 owners and operators of drug treatment centers and sober homes with buying and selling insured addicts.
Big Pharma is raking in billions and using the same tactics as the tobacco industry used to market cigarettes in the ’50s. Back then there were ads and television commercials with doctors saying, “Physicians prefer Camels.”
Today, Oxycontin ads in medical journals say, “Opioids are good for treating pain. They don’t have addictive potential.” Ten years from now, with upward of 500,000 projected dead, we’re going to look back and say, “What, were we insane?”
President Trump: Where do I start?
Ritchie Farrell: Mr. President, we have to start with the American people. We have to shatter the stigma of opioid addiction. It took 30 years to get here; we are not going to turn it around in one or two.
Unfortunately, it will require a massive public investment to meet the big health care and socioeconomic needs facing millions of American addicts. We don’t even have up-to-date figures to measure the social and economic burden of the heroin epidemic on Americans. In fact, we have to go back to 2013 ― four years ago, it cost the American taxpayers almost $80 billion.
As you know, Congress has added some spending to addiction care (including $1 billion over two years in the 21st Century Cures Act), but it’s nowhere near the tens of billions needed every year to fully confront the crisis.
We are looking down the barrel of the worst health crisis in America’s history. Right at this moment, accidental overdose of opioids is the leading cause of death of Americans under 50. We are a nation of 300 million people ― $1 billion will not even scratch the surface.
Mr. President, you are a successful business man. You understand “rate of return.” We need to go big. An investment of tens of billions could save hundreds of billions in the long run by preventing even more in costs.
President Trump: How am I going to raise taxes for opioid abuse when I have people like Missouri state Sen. Rob Schaaf, who said when people die of overdoses, that “just removes them from the gene pool.” And then I have Sheriff Richard Jones from Butler County, Ohio, who refuses to allow his deputies to carry Narcan?
Ritchie Farrell: Mr. President, that is an easy answer. Right now, this heroin epidemic is causing public safety issues in towns and cities across America. We have young children playing and swimming in public parks scattered with hypodermic needles with deadly traces of fentanyl and carfentanil.
From Maine to New Mexico, addicts stand at busy traffic intersections with hand-made signs begging for money for their habit. Both small and large city-centers are infested with addicts committing petty crimes like pickpocketing, grab-and-run, or overdosing on the sidewalks.
We need to create safe houses. Basically, legal shooting galleries. To win a war, any general will tell you that to be successful you must win one battle at a time. Secure the streets, get the face of addiction out of public view and the stigma will change.
But we cannot just open “safe houses.” That will not deter crime or decrease the numbers of fatal overdoses. We must push the envelope further and administer prescription heroin at these safe houses. In fact, this has been successful in several countries.
Unfortunately, there is a certain percentage of addicts for whom traditional therapies just will not work. Look at it like cancer treatment. In some people, chemotherapy and radiation are successful, while others die from complications of chemotherapy.
It will be so much better to give addicts a safe source of the drug they’re seeking and a safe place to inject heroin. It will eliminate addicts buying it on the street, with the extremely high risk of the heroin being laced with fentanyl or carfentanil. Of course, the chance of accidental overdose with medical supervision will be reduced greatly or perhaps even eradicated.
President Trump: But won’t safe houses and prescribed heroin add to the number of heroin addicts in American.
Ritchie Farrell: Well, the facts say otherwise. Take the AIDS epidemic. In the early years of my recovery, I walked the drug-riddled streets in the Acre Section of Lowell, Massachusetts handing out needles to heroin addicts. It was illegal, but a 1998 study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found needle exchange programs generally reduced the spread of HIV without increasing drug use.
President Trump: How would we staff safe houses across America with trained medical and health professionals? Who would pay for all this increase in a highly skilled labor?
Ritchie Farrell: Simple. Forgive me, Mr. President, but the solution here is already up and running. AmeriCorps engages more than 80,000 Americans in intensive service each year at 21,600 unique sites, including nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country. Since the program’s founding in 1994, more than 1 million AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 1.4 billion hours in service across America while tackling pressing problems and mobilizing more than 2.3 million volunteers for the organizations they serve.
Just expand the services to Safe House America. Pay young men and woman a small stipend to work the new facilities and offer to pay off their medical school loans, nursing school loans, and college loans.
President Trump: I have to ask. How did you kick a 10-bag-a-day habit?
Ritchie Farrell: It wasn’t easy. I did it the old fashion way: cold turkey. However, my childhood uniquely qualified me to beat heroin. That’s a discussion for a whole different time.
These are times that call for radical change. Not everybody is going to overcome their addiction, write a memoir, and be awarded the du-Pont Columbia for excellence in journalism. I am one of the lucky ones.
Unfortunately, sometimes addiction is a terminal disease. I know lots of my recovery friends will be shocked to read that I called for safe houses and prescription heroin. It was not easy for me to embrace the idea that giving out free heroin in a warm, clean environment is the best we can do.
However, Mr. President, safe houses and prescription heroin are the game-changers.
Ritchie Farrell is the author of I am a Heroin Addict.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.