It’s time to re-think how we’re fighting heroin

Jonathan Thompson

[This op-ed originally appeared in the Washington Examiner]

Heroin addiction is doing immeasurable damage to our country, our communities and our families. While the losses are both mounting and devastating, there have been some victories. And in these places where battles are being won, there lies a roadmap to winning the war.

In December 2015, the National Sheriffs' Association partnered with Purdue Pharma L.P. to make the rescue drug Naloxone, which revives a patient during an opioid overdose, more accessible to law enforcement. Purdue and the National Sheriffs' Association fully funded the effort without federal backing.

In eight states – Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia – 500 two-dose Naloxone kits were distributed to 12 local law enforcement agencies, where more than 300 deputies and officers were trained to administer the drug in cases of overdose.

The results are coming into focus, and they are proof-positive of what can be done to combat this scourge when law enforcement and the private sector are working together.

This program has seen hard evidence that law enforcement, armed with Naloxone, has saved almost 100 lives. That's 100 mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters – Americans rescued from the grave by the brave efforts of law enforcement and the solution-focused contributions of the private sector.

As more reporting comes in, we expect the number of lives saved to climb.

While we welcome this good news and applaud the efforts of our deputies and Purdue, the storm of bad news from this epidemic continues to rage. That's why we must look to this silver-lining for not only hope but also a battle plan.

The sad reality is that heroin overdoses are just the beginning of this nightmare. As border enforcement and security become more real, supply will drop and prices will rise. Violence and crime will spike as addicts look for ways to support their deadly habits.

Sadly, our national addiction epidemic could soon be followed by a nationwide crime epidemic, its arrival obscured by our tears from lost loved ones and the all-consuming efforts utilized to fight the battle against heroin that is before us.

For more than 50 years, our nation has looked to well-intentioned top-down strategies that have produced memorable headlines – remember Elvis and Nixon? – while failing to truly destroy this grave threat to our nation.

What we have learned from this pilot project is that there are solutions coming from the private sector that, when combined with the professionalism and expertise of our nation's law enforcement officers, can produce real and meaningful results.

We believe there are similar solutions for combatting and preventing heroin use popping up in communities across the country. It is that belief that has led us to push for a lasting national dialogue that brings together everyone who has a stake in this fight.

We believe the private sector is a key to solving this problem. Non-governmental entities, law enforcement, the federal government and the private sector must act in unison. We need metrics-based initiatives that exploit solutions. Equally important, we can no longer rely solely on federal funding or direction exclusively.

Our goals are simple but multi-faceted. We believe creating national policies and best-practices forum of senior executives from the private sector, NGOs and government should:

  1. Explore short-term strategies to raise awareness about the epidemic and its cost to our nation;
  2. Launch a long-term re-evaluation of how to positively change perceptions of killer drugs and;
  3. Identify and implement solutions that are at the core of education, production and importation, distribution, addiction, treatment during incarceration and long-term recovery, crime, employment and the myriad of other challenges and opportunities.

We need to have a pointed discussion that regularly and openly discusses what works, what doesn't, and where communities can go for solutions.

Right now, we need to come together as a country to figure out what is already working and what we can do to implement these solutions on a national scale.

Our association, along with others, are committed to bringing our respective resources to support this concept, and we are hopeful that federal entities like the Drug Enforcement Administration will help support and broaden our existing initiatives and formalize this landmark change in the way we combat our nation's heroin problem.

Law enforcement, and many in the private sector are already fighting back and saving lives.

But if we hope to win the war, and not just a few battles, it will take a collective effort from all of us.

Jonathan Thompson is CEO and executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association.