Editorial: A shift in attitude regarding addiction

  • A fentanyl user holds a needle near Kensington and Cambria in Philadelphia,Oct. 22, 2018. Suicides and drug overdoses helped lead a surge in U.S. deaths last year, and drove a continuing decline in how long Americans are expected to live. U.S. health officials released the latest numbers Thursday, Nov. 29. Death rates for heroin, methadone and prescription opioid painkillers were flat. But deaths from the powerful painkiller fentanyl and its close opioid cousins continued to soar in 2017.  PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER VIA AP/DAVID MAIALETTI

Published: 1/25/2019 9:21:28 AM

In the past year, even the new U.S. health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, has supported wider access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction — the use of drugs like methadone and Suboxone to curtail cravings.

Azar, who took office a year ago, says he plans to reduce the stigma associated with addiction and addiction therapy and does not view addiction as a moral failing. Removing that stigma is also a goal of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, and is the reason it promoted medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, at a gathering of area health care providers, residents and community leaders concerned with the current opioid epidemic — which in the past five years has emerged as one of the most intractable drug crises in U.S. history.

The Federal Drug Administration has approved three drugs for opioid treatment — Suboxone, methadone and Vivitrol, deeming them safe and effective combined with counseling and other support. The drugs block receptors in the brain normally used by drugs like heroin, and thus reduce the cravings that drive those in recovery to use heroin.

Dr. Ruth Potee, a local addiction expert and physician at Valley Medical Group, prescribes Suboxone to her patients and described it as one of the “most effective tools in her arsenal” for addressing a patient’s addiction.

“It’s not a magic bullet that fixes everyone, but for about half the people who use it, it is life-saving,” Potee has said. “The number one thing people say to me is that they feel normal again ... They’re able to allow their brain to heal. Many are weaned off of it eventually.”

Some have expressed skepticism about using one opioid-like drug to treat another, but MAT is gaining growing acceptance, as Azar’s statements have shown — even if the treatment becomes a kind of maintenance regimen like insulin is for diabetics. No one accuses diabetics of having weak moral fiber for remaining on insulin.

There has been a rise in the acceptance of MAT in the medical field, particularly in western Massachusetts, and we hope this acceptance continues to grow as part of an overall plan of recovery.

Potee, a member of the task force, notes there’s no “magic wand” to recovery.

At the recent gathering, Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan noted that most county jail inmates have substance abuse or addiction problems, and that his facility has become a way to move these people toward the path of recovery, many using medication like Suboxone. The state is following Franklin County’s lead by supporting the exploration of Suboxone programs in jails statewide.

The shift in attitude is beginning, and locally we have the local opioid task force volunteers and their many allies to thank for establishing and filling the front lines in the current war against addiction and for recovery. But by all accounts, this is going to be a long battle, and it only makes sense to provide everyone with all the tools — in this case medication — that might help them return to a more normal life.

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