Destigmatizing opioid addiction will save lives

By Anchal Kanojia '21 April 17, 2019

Socially, the stigma against addiction is toxic. Often, people who seek help feel discriminated against and are treated as junkies or fiends. Drugs are normal. Drug use has been a normal practice across different cultures and time periods. As a society that has normalized nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana use, there is a difference between using drugs and chaotic drug use. One difference is as simple as drinking on the weekends versus binge drinking every day.

Regulation and destigmatization are important for our society to progress. In fact, Portugal is a great example of what a society with decriminalized drugs look like. This is a country where drug-related HIV infections have dropped significantly. In some areas of the U.S., there are people and organizations making steps in the right direction. An article in National Review explains how Philadelphia has “safe consumption sites” where drug users can safely inject heroin, receive clean needles, test for fentanyl and have naloxone. It is a matter of regulation, destigmtaiztion, and acceptance.

The United States is in the midst of an opioid epidemic. In as little as three decades, the amount of deaths on a monthly basis from opiods surpassed the death toll of the 9/11 attacks. As the death toll rises, researchers, medical teams, and policy makers strive to find a feasible solution to an escalating situation.

So, what are opioids? Opiates are naturally occurring chemicals while opioids are their semi-synthetic counterparts like heroin, oxycontin, codeine, and fentanyl.The human brain has opioid receptors that readily accept opiates and opioids. Neurologically, when these chemicals bind to the opiate receptors, dopamine is released causing feelings of pleasure, which is why opioids are prescribed to alleviate pain. This dopamine release is addictive; MedMark Treatment Center details that opioids can release two to ten times more dopamine than our natural receptors do. Additionally, in a study conducted by the University of California San Francisco, scientists found that synthetic opioids cross membranes 40 seconds faster than natural endogenous opiates, which take over a minute.

Naloxone is a drug antagonist used to reverse opioid overdoses. In 2012, Rensselaer County law enforcement began carrying naloxone. Ambulances in New York carry naloxone and RPI Ambulance is also trained to treat an overdose. The need for naloxone training and distribution is vital, especially given that there was an overdose by a Rensselaer student in 2017. In order to get a better insight into the issue, I spoke with Professor and Department Head of Science and Technology Studies Nancy Campbell who has had years of experience researching drug and drug addiction. Campbell suggests training fraternities and sororities to administer naloxone. The opioid epidemic is real, and training, awareness, and destigmatization is needed to prevent further deaths. Opioid usage is not uncommon. Even with policy changes and a higher availability of naloxone, there is still an urgent need for a stronger stance to tackle the epidemic.

Drug abuse and addiction is often tied to mental health issues. If you or anyone you know is interested in treatment, you can visit the Drug Abuse website or call (877) 960-2901 to receive a free naloxone kit and training at the Rensselaer County Department of Health. Call Kelsey Sargood at (518) 270-2651 for  the schedule, or visit their website. For other helpful tips, visit the Harm Reduction Coalition website.