EDITORIAL: Can county stem opioid abuse?

LOCAL OFFICIALS CALL OPIOID ABUSE in Columbia County an “epidemic.” That’s a metaphor–as far as we know, addiction is not a microbe spread by contact or exposure to the bodily fluids of others already infected.

But epidemic is a useful word. Epidemics are scary. They can sicken us, sometimes fatally. In our case the notion of an epidemic is meant to get us mobilized to respond.

That’s the goal of the county Board of Supervisors as outlined in the board’s Columbia County Opioid Epidemic Response Plan. The supervisors adopted the plan in April and now a subcommittee created by the board that includes the district attorney, the sheriff, private social services and heads of the relevant county agencies is visiting communities around the county trying to sell the plan.

There’s no other way to say it. That’s what they must do. Heroin, its toxic synthetic cousins and misused prescription painkillers are causing the deaths of innocent people. Some people may not see it that way. They view addiction as a character flaw instead of what Twin Counties Recovery Services Executive Director Beth Schuster, a subcommittee member, calls it: a brain disease.

Either way, the county has a problem on its hands that will require additional public spending. One approach is to keep putting people in jail or prison for drug use they can’t control. The people best suited to know–the DA and the sheriff–say that approach won’t work.

The alternative will require new local facilities, like a treatment stabilization center, where people ready to withdraw from drug use can go for supervised detoxification and then move on to a recovery program. That will be expensive, and you can imagine how many communities will want one of those facilities in their back yard.

The people who know addiction best agree that the chance for recovery is greatest when a person who abuses opioids decides he or she is ready to quit. They describe this opportunity as a window and they say that it closes quickly.

There is one program in the county that takes full advantage of that window. It’s called Chatham Cares 4 U, and in the county plan it’s also described as a Police-Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative (PAARI).

The program encourages drug users to come to the police station in Chatham, where a police officer will find a treatment facility bed person and transport the person to the facility. The police seize and destroy any drugs the person has but the person is not charged with a crime. The program, supported mostly by the village and by private donations, has been functioning for 14 months and has found treatment services for 148 people so far.

It might be the most successful program drug epidemic response in the county. It also presents county leaders with a dilemma. Chatham Cares 4 U was started by Chatham Police Chief Peter Volkmann, a former Columbia County deputy sheriff now running for sheriff against the incumbent sheriff, David Bartlett.

At last week’s Opioid Epidemic Response Subcommittee forum in Valatie, a speaker chided the subcommittee for not including Chief Volkmann on the panel. And while the county does describe Chatham Cares 4U in the response plan, it undermines the bipartisan mission of the subcommittee when a program with such promise receives a chilly reaction from top county officials.

There are serious questions about the PAARI program that would benefit from public discussion. For instance, the speaker in Valatie observed that the Chatham program works so well because treatment centers naturally give priority to requests from police officers when determining which patients to accept. But District Attorney Paul Czajka said that police have no special legal authority to make such requests. That raises the question of whether it’s wise to cast police officers in the role of intermediary in what is a voluntary medical decision by a private citizen, regardless of the disease involved.

Consider also whether the county’s police agency, the Sheriff’s Office, should adopt a similar PARRI program. Do we want deputies, who have a high level of police training, diverted to driving people to addiction treatment centers outside the county? Can we afford that?

These aren’t theoretical questions. There were at least 11 fatal drug overdoses in the county in the first six months of this year. The county could make a big difference; it’s made an impressive start. But stemming this epidemic will take a long time, a lot of money and a commitment to try new ideas that save lives.

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