Experts: Treat heroin as a health problem, not crime
WASHINGTON – It used to be that when Mesa emergency officials got a call about a heroin overdose, they dispatched a fire truck to the scene and called in police once it was determined that drugs were involved.
Today, the same call might bring a squad of nurse practitioners and health professionals who could provide onsite medical care and get the person who had overdosed into appropriate treatment for their addiction.
Mesa’s approach – addressing the heroin epidemic as not only a law enforcement issue, but also a community issue – is an example of the approach touted last week to mayors from across the country who were at the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington.
“The more we treat addicts as criminals and the less we treat them as people who have health problems, the more we’re just going to prolong this problem,” Mesa Mayor John Giles said before a session on the issue.
During that session, Kim Leonard, the deputy director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, addressed a small group of mayors about the rise in heroin abuse.
Leonard said that addiction to prescription drugs, and especially addiction to pain relievers, has led to a spike in the relatively “cheaper and more easily obtainable” heroin.
The typical heroin user is young, white and affluent, and addiction to the drug usually starts as a prescription from a doctor, according to data presented at the meeting.
“Because of the intertwined nature of pain, prescription drugs and heroin, it is critical that cities, states and other jurisdictions adopt solutions that address these linkages and interdependencies,” Leonard said.
Giles said the new Mesa program, which is funded by a federal grant, allows cities to “get people into health care” that they need to recover, instead of taking “the more expensive and less effective approach and put them into the criminal justice system.”
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who was also at the conference in Washington, echoed Giles, saying that while law enforcement must be involved in addiction-related crimes, cities also need to find ways to help addicts get “back into our society.”
But one Arizona law enforcement official said there are aspects of the heroin problem where police will always be needed – and in at least one slice of the heroin epidemic, stopping the drug cartels, law enforcement is needed now more than ever.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who was in Washington last week for a meeting of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said his county has had the “heaviest hand of enforcement in the entire state” dedicated to stopping the Sinaloa Cartel and other drug cartels.
He said his department is focusing not only on drug smugglers but also on heroin dealers and abusers in an effort to stop the drug from infiltrating neighborhoods.
“It should be shocking to all Arizonans that this drug has returned in force, highly addictive, and it’s destroying people’s lives,” Babeu said.
Cronkite News reporter Liliana Salgado contributed to this article.