The opioid epidemic has devastated the United States for more than a decade, claiming over 64,000 lives in year 2016 alone. President Trump recently declared the opioid epidemic a “public health emergency,” switching the government’s focus from detention to prevention, invention, and monitoring, however two local enforcement officers say their eyes have been opened to this idea for a long time, and now their hearts won’t let them continue without change to build up their community.
The opioid epidemic didn’t begin overnight, and didn’t spiral out of control because of one individual physician overprescribing pain medication nor one agency failing to do their job. The US drug problem dates back as far as the early 1900’s, with the creation of morphine to treat pain. In 1970, the problem was so great that former President Richard Nixon developed a task force to study the problem. The early 1980’s yielded caution for physicians’ dispensing pain medication in fear of individuals becoming addicted, however in the 90’s these concepts began to shift. In this decade, pain became an important fifth vital sign, and doctors were urged to manage patients’ pain not only with a number, but with a prescription.
Now in 2017, the epidemic has spiraled out of control, where drug addiction has left every home in America rarely untouched. President Donald Trump spoke on October 26,2017 declaring America’s problem a “public health emergency.” This shift in focus calls for medical professionals to be trained in safe prescription practices, new federal efforts to develop non-addictive pain medications, additional efforts to prevent the shipment of fentanyl from China to the US, and the suspension of a federal rule that now prevents Medicaid from treating several patients at drug rehabilitation facilities.
With over forty years combined work in Drug enforcement, Drug Agents Danny Phillips and Kris Lewallen, Scott County Sherriff’s Department, say their eyes have been opened throughout the epidemic. According to Phillips, both officers began their career in law enforcement to keep their community safe, for current and future generations, including their own children. With strong motives instilled, they vowed to protect and serve to the best of their knowledge, through skilled training. Despite the best of their own abilities, Lewallen believes his initial training was flawed.
We were trained that these people who are addicted need to be locked away,” Lewallen stated. “It was a mentality and a warrior mindset, that these people were the enemies.”
After some time spent fighting the War on Drugs, Lewallen says a lightbulb went off in his head, and at that point he then realized, the people he had been arresting couldn’t be bad, nor were they his enemies.
“I started seeing my friends get hooked on drugs, then good people in the community getting arrested for drug related crimes,” Lewallen said. “I realized these people aren’t my enemies, they are my friends, and citizens of Scott County.”
Lewallen admits he has arrested some of his friends for drugs, because it’s his job, but he says he doesn’t like having to do it, especially now. Although, he remembers a time when treatment wasn’t a thought in his mind for drug addicts, Lewallen says that’s what he really wants the power to be able to do instead of just arresting someone. He recalls a recent arrest made with Drug Agent Bill Miller, Oneida Police Department, and says what turned into getting information for another arrest led to getting the man help.
“We had to arrest a guy we went to high school with last week, and after talking to him for a while, we realized he was pretty bad off.” Lewallen stated. “We stopped trying to make another arrest right there, and used that information to get him some help. It started as an arrest and led to hugs, heartbreak and crying.”
Phillips says he agrees with partner, and both have realized over years of arresting the same individuals repeatedly, along with friends becoming addicted, that the opioid epidemic is not just a law enforcement issue alone. The two reported being overjoyed when they heard news of the President’s proclamation.
“We have known for a long time this isn’t a just a law enforcement problem.” Phillips said. “It’s a medical problem, and we need help from the medical community to fight it.”
Lewallen says he believes the problem started with overprescribing and under monitoring of the usage and dispensing of narcotics and other drugs known to have addiction potential. In addition to Lewallen’s thoughts, Phillips believes that there some physcians are only out for the money to be found in the pain management business. He added that not all physicians are bad, and he has no problem with pain managment followed by close monitoring and only when necessary.
“When you can drive by a pain clinic and see several cars from several different states, you know there is a problem there, “Phillips stated. “We need to be treating the problem, instead of covering it up.”
The solution to the problem isn’t an easy one, and like the epidemic came on, it won’t go away overnight. Phillips and Lewallen are in agreeance that Trump’s proclamation is the perfect beginning to fixing the problem, by getting health care professionals involved in safe prescription practices, and creating non-addictive pain medications.
“America is a wonderful country, and we have been able to achieve anything we wanted too so far,” Lewallen said. “If we want to, and I believe we do now, we can create effective non-addictive pain medications.”
With the President herding medical professionals in the right direction, and retracting the federal law that prevents many addicts from getting help, the officers now feel there should be some restructuring of law enforcement and the judiciary system. Treatment in jail or as an alternative to jail for those who have fallen addicted to drugs is what they want to see.
“Law enforcement needs to direct our enforcement to treatment instead of jail time,” Phillips stated. “They aren’t changing in a jail cell.” “I would like to see a psychiatrist hired full time at the jail, so these people will have someone to talk to.” Lewallen stated.
Furthermore, the duo want to see officers, young and old, be retrained on their attitudes and performance toward the drug addicted community.
“We have really got to do some reconstruction and retraining of how our officer’s mentality’s are” Lewallen said. “Our job is to protect and serve, and to serve means to help those people, officers need to know that.”
The opioid addiction may have claimed 64,000 lives in 2016, but with a positive declaration from the President, enforcement from both the law and medical communities now, the invention of non-addictive pain medication on the horizon, and a broken barrier to treatment; the numbers have the potential to decrease. After all, no one wakes up one day and decides to become addicted to drugs. All addicts want to stop.
“Drug addiction is truly a demon, and I’ve never met an addict that wanted to be one. They all want to end it.” Lewallen stated. “We can’t go on without stopping this thing, and it’s going to take everyone’s help. The future of Scott County’s children depend on it.”