Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Opinion: Deal with Addiction

Florida needs leaders who will address the growing public health crisis that is substance abuse. To date in Florida, both alcohol and drug abuse are treated largely as a criminal justice issue, but that is an unsustainable, unaffordable and fundamentally unhelpful approach that does almost nothing to change behaviors so costly to society.

"We need to get rid of the stigma," said Mark Fontaine of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association. "Substance abuse needs to be front and center as a health care issue."

Mr. Fontaine, along with Ellen Piekalkiewicz of the Florida Substance Abuse and Mental Health Corp. and Leon County Commissioner Bryan Desloge, met with the Tallahassee Democrat Editorial Board this week to advocate for a multipronged, community-based approach for addressing substance abuse in our state.

Resetting current policy to address this public health issue, which severely affects our criminal justice system including county jails, will take the dedication of statesmen willing to reframe the arguments and address the ramifications caused by substance abuse and its serious economic costs.

In local communities, public health groups must come together to develop models that support community-based care at every step, from prevention and early intervention through ongoing recovery. Individually, addressing substance-abuse issues will take candor in admitting that every person knows someone (or knows someone who knows someone) who has battled with a drug and or alcohol addiction.

Bottom line, bottom dollar

Although drug abuse and alcohol rehab and abuse made a $43 billion annual impact in Florida by robbing the state's economy of viable workers and production and adding to health care, law-enforcement and other costs, there are few resource exclusively committed to addressing the issue.

An excise tax on alcohol, stagnant since 1999, has been swept into the state's general revenue fund instead of being used (like money from the state's tobacco settlement) to address alcohol-abuse related issues.

Most city and county budgets, including ours in the capital city, lack provisions to specifically address drug abuse, and end up paying the price in wholesale incarceration and some temporary treatment of individuals who grapple with addiction. As Mr. Desloge said Tuesday, Leon County spends $30 million to run the jail and $30 million for the sheriff's office, and the city spends about $40 million for the police department — but how much less the figures might be if well more than half of jail inmates weren't housed for addiction-related violations. They belong in treatment programs such as alcoholics anonymous.

Continuing to operate at such high costs without isolating and addressing the root causes cannot continue. Yet diversionary and treatment programs aren't politically popular in our lock-'em-up state, and candidates or sitting lawmakers likely wouldn't see a return on their investment during their short terms in office.

With redirected funds, Leon County could better address local need — as with a recent addiction treatment program at Bond Community Health Center and Apalachee Center. Our law-enforcement officers do benefit from training to recognize substance-abuse issues when they apprehend a subject — another step wise application of our resources.

It starts with you

But legislation, spending reform and the promotion of centers equipped to deal with the needs of the addict are only parts of the solution. To truly advance viable alternatives, individuals must come forward and acknowledge their support for such changes.

Ms. Piekalkiewicz reminds us that substance abuse "is on every street, it's in every community," yet at every turn, this public health pandemic is treated with silence, shame and anonymity.

As Mr. Fontaine pointed out, with substance abuse, there is no "Walk for Recovery," no well-orchestrated campaign to battle it.

The first step to encouraging our lawmakers to revisit current policies is to express community support for such a change. It can begin with the simple admission that we know someone who struggles, and we are committed — with our votes, our time and our dollars — to changing the final impact on our communities and our economy by speaking up.

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