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Friday, April 22, 2016

The Obligation To Save Addicts

“As the former head of state of Switzerland, where innovations in drug policy have been front and center for years, I have learned much about how to prevent heroin overdoses, improve the lives of people who use drugs and create a safer environment for their communities. It is a complex puzzle, but there are key pieces that, when used together, create a public health approach with long-lasting positive effects...
“The United States could take some important lessons from Switzerland's success.

“In the past 20 years, Switzerland and other countries, such as Portugal and Uruguay, have implemented policies that are people-centered, focused on health and most importantly, keeping people alive -- all while respecting human rights.

“Switzerland's federal government focused on reducing the harms of drug use among people who inject drugs, creating supervised injection sites and offering substance analysis services and access to opiate substitution therapy, mainly through methadone and even medical heroin...

“I have learned that the single goal of the puzzle I mentioned earlier is keeping people alive, and that can be attained when governments provide comprehensive services.”

--Ruth Dreifuss, Swiss politician and member of Swiss Federal Council from 1993-2002

(Ruth Dreifuss. “The secret to fighting U.S. heroin epidemic.” CNN. April 19, 2016.)

To me, the first question for any American interested in ending drug abuse – dependency, addiction, overdose – is simple and brutally straightforward. The question is: “Do you want to save the life of every individual who endangers himself/herself with drugs?”

If you qualify your answer with a myriad of judgments about who deserves to live and who deserves to die, you may as well withdraw from the fight and watch the course of the epidemic as it sweeps the nation. You, like me, hate addiction. But you, unlike me, feel some people deserve to die.

I mean you can argue all day about whether the dangerous drug is legal or illegal, about whether addiction is caused by weak wills or environmental and genetic factors, about whether maintaining sobriety is morally or immorally responsible, or about whether addicts deserve a second, third, or fourth chance BUT a life threatened by substance abuse – any life – is worthy of existence.

In fact, we have the obligation as a member of a caring society to save those who may die because of their own drug abuse. I will say this once more: We have the obligation to save drug addicts.

I believe this because I know that the substances taken by drug abusers are not the sources of their addiction. As people often point out to me, even potentially deadly substances like heroin or prescription opioids are merely harmless objects and do not become deadly vehicles until a human uses them.

But, there is the problem for those who judge. Why do people use substances that might take their lives? We have the answer in our own experiences, but are we willing to recall our own lives and to accept our lack of reasoning and attraction to risky behaviors. Until we do, we remain callous to those who “can't even exercise sufficient self-control.” I used to be a poster-child for reckless, dangerous behaviors. My usual substance of choice was a boatload of alcohol.

So, perhaps a better question than “Do you want to save the life of every individual who endangers himself/herself with drugs?” might be “Why would anyone take a risk that threatens life, limb, and happiness?” Would you judge all of these people before administering life-saving attempts – the drunk driver bleeding on the highway, the teen gang member shot in a drug deal gone wrong, the suicide victim who still breathes?

Environmental factors, social factors, and genetic factors certainly contribute to dependency and addiction. Some of these pressures become so severe that people use drugs and eventually become addicted. If you have ever wanted to escape, to relax, to relieve boredom, to seem grown up, to rebel, or to experiment, then you also understand the belief that taking great risks is acceptable.

To me, the sacred value of one human life is beyond calculation. To deny lifesaving redemption to a person, even to a person who has destroyed his or her own good health, is judgment that increases our own collective inhumanity to man. We must aid in saving life at every opportunity. We are responsible for solving our own health epidemic even when stigma runs high. 

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