Editorial: On heroin, new approach needed for an old scourge
In Love Liza, a horrifying little movie written by his brother Gordon Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays a man who becomes addicted to the poor man’s high, “huffing” gasoline. Hoffman’s on-screen dissolution in the movie is deeply disturbing and convincing, perhaps because as he said at the time, his experience with other drugs prepared him for the role. Hoffman, arguably the greatest actor of his generation, died on his bathroom floor last Sunday with a syringe in his arm. He was 46, and until his recent heroin binge, he had reportedly been clean for more than two decades.
Heroin, an opioid derived from morphine, is an old scourge that’s had a resurgence. Last month, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted the majority of his State of the State address to what he called the “full-blown heroin crisis.” Vermont, Shumlin said, has seen a seven-fold increase in treatment for opiates and a 250 percent increase in treatment for heroin addiction since 2000. It has opened treatment centers throughout the state, but the supply of addicted Vermonters is so large that more than 500 addicts remain on the treatment waiting list.
Last week, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, in his State of the State address, reported that 927 babies born in his state last year were addicted to drugs with each requiring about $50,000 in medical treatment. The governors, Shumlin a Democrat, LePage a conservative Republican, differ in their approach to the problem. LePage’s plan calls for an increase in treatment for addicts, but it leans heavily toward increased law enforcement. Shumlin wants his state to recognize drug addiction as a disease and treat it as a medical problem. It’s Shumlin’s example that New Hampshire should follow, but the state has a long way to go.
The heroin epidemic has not spared New Hampshire. Its use has increased dramatically, at least in part because the prescription database for controlled drugs authorized by the Legislature in 2012 has made it harder for drug seekers to go from doctor to doctor to get narcotics. Heroin, and other drugs, is responsible for the dramatic increase in theft, shoplifting, car break-ins, armed robberies and deaths from an overdose. The great majority of inmates in the state’s prisons and jails are there for offenses in which drug or alcohol addiction played a role. Few of them are offered treatment while behind bars, and so they return to prison again and again and again.
According to New Futures, a nonprofit organization that combats drug problems, 113,000 New Hampshire residents are estimated to be in need of drug or alcohol treatment, but only 6,000 per year, or about 5 percent, are able to receive help through state-funded treatment programs. That must change. Treating addicts costs taxpayers one-tenth as much as incarcerating them when they commit an addiction-related crime.
Treatment can turn homeless addicts into taxpayers and preserve families. But it isn’t free. To save money and lives, lawmakers must agree to spend up front, but not so much as some may think. Under the Affordable Care Act, people, including Medicaid recipients, who buy insurance through the state’s health exchange will get plans that cover treatment for substance abuse. That should mean that more people who seek help will get it from a growing supply of trained providers. Many more addicts would be able to get help if lawmakers finally agree to expand Medicaid under the law, a prospect that seems more likely now that Senate leaders have announced a compromise deal. That would be an especially big win for the state, since the federal government would pick up 100 percent of the cost for the first three years and at least 90 percent thereafter.
Hoffman is the latest famous victim of a drug that kills thousands who aren’t famous every year, including 38 New Hampshire residents in 2012. Chasing drug dealers will help, but it won’t solve the problem. Treating addiction as a disease and making treatment available to all who want it just might.