HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Ohio State Representative Denise Driehaus put the region's heroin problem in simple terms on Wednesday: "Every single day we're losing people."
Driehaus spoke at the NKY Forum about heroin and public policy Wednesday at Northern Kentucky University. The forum gathered policymakers, academics, medical professionals and recovering addicts for discussion.
Driehaus has been active in trying to get legislation passed to combat the growing menace. She spoke specifically about House Bill 249, currently pending, which would be a 911 Good Samaritan law, providing immunity from arrest or prosecution for someone seeking medical assistance for another person experiencing a medical emergency.
"It's been a challenge to get it out of committee," she told the assembly. "The opposition wants to go after dealers, but wouldn't we rather save the life?"
There were many suggestions on how to deal with the epidemic, both from the speakers and the audience during a later participatory session.
Among those suggestions were:
Remove the stigma from addiction. This was mentioned multiple times and supported by science, according to Dr. Perilou Goddard, psychology professor from NKU. “Science says addiction is a chronic brain disease,” Goddard said. “Genetics are 50 percent of that. Think of it like other chronic diseases, like Type-2 diabetes. You wouldn’t say to someone with diabetes, ‘You should’ve thought that through when you were buying those Krispy Kremes.’”
Education on prevention. Kenton County Judge-executive Kris Knochelmann supported this, although he said education alone isn’t enough. He said a helpline for those in crisis was being worked on between Kenton, Boone and Campbell counties, and added that he would be asking his county's fiscal court to invest in finding additional beds to treat addicts. “If there was ever a project that needed financial support in this community, this is one,” he said. “If it’s an epidemic, let’s act like it’s an epidemic and put our money out there.”
Driehaus also advocated combined efforts of law enforcement and social work in identifying addicts and getting them treatment. “The social worker is the key,” she said. “Ultimately, what we need to do as policymakers, is to provide more resources.”
Jason Merrick, a recovering addict who oversees addiction treatment in Kenton County jail, said there were three key words that helped him start on the path to recovery: “help you deserve.” “It dissolved those fears and barriers that kept me from getting help,” he said. He also advocated widespread availability of naloxone, the drug that helps reverse the effects of overdose. “The main thing, if you encounter someone who is overdosing, is to call 911,” he said. “After that, keep them breathing. If you can keep them breathing until the paramedics arrive, you save their life.”
- A needle exchange program was discussed. Dr. Goddard said that the common misconception, that such programs encouraged drug use, was actually the opposite of what studies have shown. “They are more likely to seek treatment (at a needle exchange) because they are treated like a human being.” While those in attendance seemed to favor needle exchange, the next step of having safe injection zones was not as widely accepted.
Speakers and audience members were quick to point out that no single solution would work, as the problem was multi-faceted. But everyone in attendance agreed on two things: The community needs to act, and it needs to act now.
“People are good. We have a good community and we want to do what’s right, but we need the education and resources in order to beat this thing,” Knochelmann said. “And we will.”