America “can’t arrest its way out of the opioid epidemic,” a top official of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) said Thursday.
Paul Cell, First Vice President of the IACP, called for an increase in collaborative efforts among law enforcement, health care workers and social-service providers to address an epidemic that is costing more American lives each year than automobile crashes.
“We have to put our egos in check,” Cell said at a conference on “Justice in the Heartland” at John Jay College in New York.
“Our children are dying. The time for silos is past.”
Cell, who serves as chief of the Montclair (NJ) State University Police and will become president of the 30,000-member IACP next year, was speaking at the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, which brings together journalists, academics and justice practitioners for discussions on criminal justice issues.
He was joined by Rita Noonan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Cheri Walter, CEO of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Authorities; and José Diaz-Briseño, Washington correspondent for La Reforma of Mexico.
All the panelists agreed that efforts aimed only at punishing addicts or their suppliers failed to address the roots of the opioid epidemic, and did little to help people trying to overcome their addictions.
For example, Walter cited the crackdown on “pill mills” in Ohio a few years ago that was intended to stop the traffic in synthetic pain relievers which had flooded the state, but was not linked to efforts to medically treat substance-abusers.
“If you don’t treat the addiction, they’ll find a new drug,” she said.
“We all need creativity, collaboration and curiosity,” said Noonan, who is chief of the Health Systems and Trauma Systems Branch of the CDC’s division of Unintentional Injury Prevention. “We have to do things we haven’t done before.”
But at a second panel on the epidemic, speakers said it was also important not to lose sight of the responsibility incurred by large pharmaceutical companies for the explosion of opioid addiction over the past decade.
A closer look at reasons for the rise in opioid dependency in tribal communities led directly to the practices pursued by the pharmaceutical firms in marketing the painkilling drugs, said John Chapman Young, senior assistant attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, which is mounting a lawsuit against major drugmakers and distributors.
“We want them to obey federal laws with respect to how many drugs they shift into our jurisdiction,” he said. “They owe us a lot of money.”
The Cherokee Nation lawsuit is one of several mounted around the country, including a major action mounted by a coalition of attorneys-general in 13 states.
Joseph Rannazzisi, a former senior official at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said Congress bore some of the blame for failing to address pharmaceutical companies’ marketing behavior.
“You have to ask yourself a question,” he said. “At the height of an epidemic driven by the pharmaceutical industry, why would Congress pass a bill to protect the pharmaceutical industry?” he said, referring to a law passed in 2016 that limited DEA efforts to crackdown on doctors and pharmacists involved in the black market for pills.
“The pharmaceutical lobby is the strongest lobby in congress. They won’t change until we force them to comply.”
Speakers in both panels also noted that the epidemic had morphed into a surge in heroin trafficking into the U.S., as many addicts unable to afford the cost of prescription medicines, turned to heroin as a cheaper alternative.
Some 80 percent of the global market for heroin is now located in the U.S., aggravated by the increased traffic in fentanyl, a synthetic opioid even more potent than heroin and which is often lethal, Cell said.
Most of the fentanyl appears to come from China, but “there are labs around the world and we see it now being sold through the Dark Web,” said Chief Cell.
Craig Hannah, presiding judge of the Opiate Treatment Court in Buffalo, NY, said it was hard to read descriptions of the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency, when a similar epidemic of crack cocaine during the 1980s was treated as a law enforcement problem.
”Why didn’t we treat this epidemic when our black and brown people were (suffering from) it in the 1980s?” he asked. “Those years in the past were a tragedy—generations of young people were put in jails.”
But he added that, nevertheless, the current consensus that “you cannot lock up an addiction” suggested the country was ready for innovative approaches outside the justice system.
Buffalo’s treatment court diverts substance-abusers to treatment before any criminal charges are laid.
“For the first 36-90 days, we focus on recovery,” said Hannah.
A similar program is operated by police in Burlington, Vt.
“We bring addicts directly to treatment,” said Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo. “Police officers like to save lives.”
Editor’s Note: Thursday’s panels on opiates (1), opiates (2), sentencing reform, and a discussion on what caused the homicide spike are available through YouTube. Friday’s conference will be also be live from approximately 9:00am to 12 noon here.
TCR staffer Megan Hadley contributed to this summary. Readers’ comments are welcome.