By Hayara Cardoso
Growing up on Cape Cod, I was accustomed to the familiar sites: crowded beaches, overwhelming amounts of tourists, freshly fried seafood, and busy ice cream parlors. Recently, another scene has been added to this list—heroin abuse. Massachusetts has been struck with a dramatic increase in heroin abuse and overdose in the last decade; in the data from 2014 alone, the number of overdoses due to heroin has increased by 63% since 2012 overdose deaths. The trends in data predict that this death toll will continue to increase, lest we put an end to this public health crisis.
Across the Atlantic in the Netherlands there has been quite the opposite trend in heroin addiction—it’s on its way to being eradicated. In the 1990’s, the Dutch healthcare system started a public health movement to rid the nation of its horrible addiction problem. Treatment centers were opened up where addicts—whom were strictly pre-screened to determine high levels of addiction—are able to go to in order to safely inject themselves with a pure, government-made heroin, using clean needles and proper sanitary procedures. Heroin isn’t the only benefit addicts receive from this program—without the necessity to find money or buy drugs everyday, these individuals now have the time and opportunities to look for housing, get psychological help, apply for jobs, and live normal lives. In fact, without that daily “rush” to find a way to get heroin, many addicts lose interest in the drug and stop all together. The success of this Dutch program has influenced more European countries to begin similar practices.
In addition to a decrease in addiction prevalence, crime incidence has also decreased. Criminal behavior can be associated with heroin use, as often individuals who use are not able to afford their addictions, and instead are left to steal from their families, friends, or stores/shops in order to pawn or sell their belongings for money. The thrill of seeking out money and heroin is taken away from these addicts, which decreases their criminal behaviors, and helps improve the safety of the entire society.
As demonstrated by the way these European nations manage addiction, heroin addicts are treated as if they are suffering from any other condition that requires medical attention. They receive respect, safe and sanitary materials, and in most cases freedom from their raveling addiction. So why can’t the United States adopt a similar strategy?
Changing the stigma behind addiction in the US is the first step to solving this public health crisis. Addiction—whether alcohol or caffeine, drugs or gambling—is something that is consistently seen in a bad light. “Just stop drinking” or “you could quit if you really wanted to” are common remarks made by the more ignorant population, as they don’t understand the complexity behind addiction. Addiction is currently described as a “chronic, relapsing psychiatric disorder”, instead of the previous notion of habits or behavioral issues, which some people still think to be true. The entire significance behind changing the way we as a country treat addiction lies at the root: we must change the stigma. Understanding the strength of addiction and the toll it takes on an individual’s body and brain is what first and foremost will help us most in treatment of addiction. With that being said, the next step is the health care system itself: the US must adapt to treating addiction as a psychological disorder, and not merely a detox program. Counseling and therapy are the two most important factors in recovery, as addicts need the psychological support in order to overcome their dependencies and themselves.
The US likes to be the best at many facets of the international world. Why shouldn’t health care be one of them? This heroin epidemic is one that will continue to increase and spread if not handled properly. The number of heroin or opioid related overdoses will continue to rise if we as a nation do not change the frame that we look through. By de-stigmatizing addiction and increasing the availability of and quality of treatment, this epidemic can be tackled head on and stopped before it gets out of hand. This vicious cycle is one that can be stopped.
Berry, Connor. “Massachusetts DPH: Overdose deaths from heroin and other opioids continue to rise.” Mass Live, October 21, 2015. Accessed February 23, 2016.
Blanken, et al. “Heroin-assisted treatment in the Netherlands: History, findings, and international context.” American Neuropsychopharmacology 20 (2010): S105-158. Accessed February 23, 2016. doi:10.1016/S0924-977X(10)70001-8.
Roes, Thijas. “Only in the Netherlands Do Addicts Complain about Free Government Heroin.” Vice News, May 6, 2014. Accessed February 23, 2016. https://news.vice.com/
Leshner, A.I. “Addiction is a brain disease, and it matters.” Science 278 (1997): 45–47.
 Berry, Connor. “Massachusetts DPH: Overdose deaths from heroin and other opioids continue to rise.” Mass Live, October 21, 2015.
 Blanken, et al. “Heroin-assisted treatment in the Netherlands: History, findings, and international context.” American Neuropsychopharmacology 20 (2010): S111-113.
 Roes, Thijas. “Only in the Netherlands Do Addicts Complain about Free Government Heroin.” Vice News, May 6, 2014.
 Blanken, et al. “Heroin-assisted treatment in the Netherlands: History, findings, and international context.” American Neuropsychopharmacology 20 (2010): S109-110, 134.
 Leshner, A.I. “Addiction is a brain disease, and it matters.” Science 278 (1997): 45–47.
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