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OpEd: Legislation brings hope to those shattered by addiction

June 13, 2016

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The Hill - June 13, 2016

Recently 129 families who have lost a family member to addiction assembled at the steps of the U.S. Capitol to call on Congress to act quickly to address the opioid crisis.

And it is a crisis.

These 129 families represent the 129 people—sisters, sons, husbands, daughters, mothers, fathers—who die of drug overdoses every day in our country. That’s equivalent to two commuter plane crashes every day, or the size of the graduating senior class in Fairview, Ohio. If you factor in alcohol related deaths, that number shoots to over 300 needless deaths every day.

Loving someone with a substance use disorder is agonizing as you struggle to find treatment, unsure of where to go, and struggle with relapses, recovery and shame.

I know this first hand because addiction shattered my family. Both of my parents battled heroin addiction. My sister and I were homeless or living in cars, hungry and with parents in and out of jail and prison.  Their suffering was also mine, my little sister’s and our entire families’.  

Thirty-one years later, I am an adult, work in addiction policy, and have young children of my own, but I have remained frustrated by how little progress we have made in three decades.

Admissions for opioid treatment have increased 500 percent in the last year. Of the 22.7 million people that need treatment, only ten percent will receive it.  Can you imagine a world where only 10 percent of cancer, Alzheimer’s or diabetes patients got the treatment they needed? 

But we may be on the cusp of finally addressing the issue though a different approach.  Last week the House passed 18 bills to address the opioid epidemic. In March, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). These bills reframe how this country handles addiction. The legislations finally recognize addiction as a disease and propose a comprehensive response that includes prevention, treatment, overdose reversal, recovery supports, law enforcement strategies and criminal justice reform.

And these bills, after 30 years of frustration, are making me and many other family members feel a lot more hopeful that we have reached the proverbial tipping point to better addressing such a paralyzing epidemic. They bring us closer to treating addiction across this nation like a disease with individualized treatment and follow up with each patient; closer to real education efforts and community-based prevention, robust recovery services for those in recovery—from recovery housing and schools to community services; and, closer expanding Medication Assisted Treatment to those who need it.

And, we are hopeful these bills bring us closer to treating individuals with substance use disorders in communities and treatment systems instead of haphazardly through our jails and prisons only to shackle them with criminal histories that make recovery even more difficult.

Congress has put a lot of work into these bills. The language is different. The policies are better. And for the more than 47,000 families who lost a parent, child, friend to an overdose last year alone, maybe we are finally within reach of tackling this epidemic. 

We are calling on Congress to move the conference forward quickly on their addiction bills and send a bill to the President as quickly as possible. Lives are at stake. Remember, 129 each day.

Jessica Nickel is the executive director of The Addiction Policy Forum. She previously served as the Director of Government Affairs for the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG).


Jessica Hulsey Nickel

Jessica began working in prevention at 15 years old through an anti-drug coalition in southern California. The next chapters included an appointment by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Drug-Free Communities Commission, serving as a legislative aid in the U.S. House of Representatives, and work to pass and fund the Second Chance Act to help individuals returning home from prison and jail. In 2015, Jessica founded the Addiction Policy Forum to help families and patients struggling with the disease of addiction. Frustrated by the lack of progress in improving outcomes for those individuals and families struggling, she started the nonprofit with $13,000 from her own savings account and long hours at the dining room table. Read more about Jessica Hulsey Nickel.