Opioid’s Only Solution

Written By: Arielle Schwartz

One day in 2008, Jordan Stierle was driving with his cousin and his cousin’s girlfriend to sell stolen videogames.  As they were driving, Jordan suddenly passed out.

He had overdosed on heroin.

“They called the cops, the cops came, and they gave me Narcan,” said Stierle, referring to the drug that counters overdoses.

Despite mass efforts to combat the crisis, opioid use and overdose is on the rise.  Even 30 years after recently deceased First Lady Nancy Reagan coined the catchphrase, “Just Say No,” to drugs, nearly 63 percent of all drug overdoses in 2014 were due to opioids including heroin and prescription painkillers, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Some cities have tried to address the issue by summoning first time offenders to drug rehabilitation institutions, instead of incarcerating them.  Nonetheless, most places across the United States, including the East End, have been unable to overcome this issue, causing opioid addicts to bounce back into a perpetual cycle of downfall.

Stierle’s addiction to opioids was such an intense cycle that he wanted to go back to using heroin even after staying in the hospital due to his overdose.

“I knew what was going to happen is that I’m going to the hospital now and I’m not going to be able to go and sell those videogames,” Stierle said. “And I’m not going to get the money and I’m not going to get more drugs.”

After leaving the hospital, Stierle immediately called his cousins so that he could complete his mission of selling the videogames he stole.  When his cousin refused to give him the videogames, he got angry.  He wouldn’t be able to get the drugs and wouldn’t be able to feel fulfilled until he could get another dose of heroin.

Now, 30-year-old Stierle has been sober for six and a half years and is a speaker and educator at Michael’s Hope Incorporated, which is a Long Island-based non-profit organization that travels around Suffolk Country with the intent to educate children and adults about drug use. The organization has left a tremendous impact on Eastern Long Island’s community, focusing their lectures on drug education rather than consequences.

As organizations such as Michael’s Hope expose the faults in the legal system regarding drug use, the government has begun to address these issues. President Obama believes that limiting prescription painkillers will not end the opioid crisis, but a mental health approach to treatment for addiction would be a huge step to narrowing the extremity of the epidemic. Obama has requested Congress to fund hundreds of millions of dollars to help treat victims of drug use. Congress, however, has not yet agreed to the President’s appeal.

Lisa Ganz, who is a Clinical Program Supervisor at the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence thinks that drug treatment and education is necessary for addicts.

“The number one way we’ve really dealt with the substance use crisis has been incarceration and our jails are filled with people who have committed crimes because of substance use,” Ganz said. “Locking people up doesn’t address the mental health part of this.  People should get help not necessarily just be locked up with no services.”

According to FBI, in 2014, over 1.2 million people were arrested for possession of illegal substances, which accounts for about 83 percent of all drug violations.  This explains that categorical drug violations have one of the highest arrest rates in the United States – which has the highest prison population, by far, of any developed nation.

Stephen Dewey, a professor of molecular medicine at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, explained that addiction is a disease where an individual has an abnormal amount of resting dopamine and that addiction should be treated as a disease.

“There’s some evidence that if you have a little higher dopamine in your brain, you’re more impulsive and people who are more impulsive are willing to try something novel and if you have an impulsive kind of personality and you try something novel you are more likely to get addicted,” Dewey said. “I think that if someone is addicted to a drug and hasn’t committed a crime then [he or she] probably [should] not [get arrested.]”

Ganz added: “People who engage in substance use often develop Anhedonia which is the inability to feel real pleasure in real time.  So when we wonder why people give up things like relationships, and families and jobs and all the things that are important there’s a neurological basis for that.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids including painkillers and heroin are increasingly becoming used amongst people in the United States, including a high number of young people.

Eventually opioids may surpass marijuana as the most abused drug in the United States because of the drug’s addictive quality.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, of all heroin users, 23 percent become addicted to opioids while only 9 percent of marijuana users become dependent on the drug.

Many addicts who consume opioids strongly believe that institutions are key to helping treat their disease.  Samantha Paulus, who is a former addict and a director at Michael’s Hope, describes how drug rehabilitation was the only way she could get help for her disease.

“I broke up with that girl and I tried to detox myself at home and I would get [to] like three days and then I would relapse again,” Paulus said. “I was trying to not use or trying to control my use but I couldn’t stop.  Rehab was the most uncomfortable experience for me because I was having anxiety attacks the entire time there… [however] if I was on the outside I would’ve [relapsed] because it was just the only thing I knew that would’ve made me stop feeling so uncomfortable.”

Paulus’s statement aligns with the National Drug Institute’s belief that tailored treatment to an addict usually prevents the addict from relapsing.

Furthermore, Ganz believes that a method of first detox then treatment is the most effective way to help an individual overcome addiction.

Even though many experts think that these methods are effective, the Congressional Research Service states incarceration as a national solution to the opioid crisis.  According to a first time offense for possession of an illegal substance leads to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in prison.  There is no mention of rehabilitation for users or possessors.

Contrary to the Congressional Research Service, Stierle believes from his own experience, that jail isn’t a solution to the opioid crisis.

“I don’t want anyone to think that drug addicts shouldn’t be able to be held accountable in any way, shape or form, but they should be given a second chance to figure out that they have a problem.” Stierle said. “Number one, because that’s the most important part, but not only to figure it out, but to get the help and going to jail just isn’t the right help.”