addiction and covid-19

The Addiction Elephant in the Room

This article was written by Joshua Shane Horton, Director of Public Policy for the Hanley Foundation. Joshua S. Horton is also an attorney in Palm Beach County at The Joshua S. Horton Law Firm, PA. The Firm specializes in Substance Use Disorder Law.

This year has truly been one that could have been authored by Stephen King and directed by Quentin Tarantino. We have seen pandemics, riots, murder hornets, and UFOs. This year has been deadly and devastating to so many, yet we really haven’t drilled down into one of the most affected vulnerable populations in this country. Substance use disorder (SUD) and mental health issues kill hundreds of Americans every day, yet we continue to try the same tired policies of the drug war, and the mass incarceration of millions of US citizens. It’s the equivalent of having a headache and beating yourself in the head with a hammer for relief.

First, Covid 19 has decimated those in recovery. SUD is a social disease and isolation kills those afflicted. We have seen numbers skyrocket in overdose, suicide, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and many other traumas that occur when isolation is thrust upon those suffering from SUD, especially those early in Recovery. Treatment centers and have shut their doors in many instances, leaving those teetering on the brink of death to fend for themselves. We are just now beginning to see the spike in overdose deaths as reports come in over the last few months of isolation. Communities of color and those in poverty suffer the worst during these times of isolation. The pharmaceutical opiate epidemic has been replaced with a fentanyl epidemic, that can only be described as a new form of terrorism, both domestic and international.

Next, we see riots and police brutality throughout our streets. Americans are crying out to a broken system desperately in need of overhaul. Police are to be social workers, therapists, etc., which they are unqualified to perform. The drug war has been an abysmal failure for the last 50 years, resulting in exacerbation of systemic racism, while simultaneously siphoning resources away from mental health and SUD. Byrne grant funding was first introduced by the Reagan administration and enhanced under Clinton. 

Under Byrne, the more drug arrests a municipality makes, the more federal grant funding they become eligible for. Arresting low level drug offenders suffering from SUD results in money for the militarization of our police departments and reduces funding available to treat those suffering from what are labeled as crimes, but are really mental health issues masked with substance use.   When the only tool at your disposal is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Defunding the police does not mean no more public safety for American citizens, instead it means the reallocation of resources to appropriate services that can adequately address our social issues in a more effective and efficient manner while saving taxpayers untold sums of money. 

By taking money from the police for low level drug offenses, and the arrest of people with clear mental health and SUD issues, we can do two things. One, we would relieve officers of the burden of having to deal with these issues that would be much more appropriately addressed as social issues so that they can focus more attention on violent crimes such as murder, rape, human trafficking, and missing children; instead of focusing most of their time fighting a war that cannot be won just so their police departments can access more federal dollars.   The elimination of the drug war  would cripple  what has become,  The  New  Jim Crow  in this country. Secondly, we would free up enormous 

amounts of money that could then be used to treat mental health conditions, housing issues, and what has become the number one killer of young people in this country, SUD. With just opiates, it is estimated that 180 people die every day due to overdose. This is the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of passengers going down every single day in this country. If this happened in the airline industry, planes would remain grounded until the problem was solved. Covid 19 numbers pale in comparison to the deaths of those afflicted with mental health and SUD issues, yet due to stigma these individuals continue to die alone and isolated labeled as modern-day lepers.

This stigma and silence has led to the lack of regulation within the treatment industry, states such as Florida choosing not to expand Medicaid for mental health and SUD issues, parity laws being put in place but unenforced. The unscrupulous actors in treatment center and sober home industry run wild, collecting exorbitant amounts of money and profiting off of others pain. Insurance companies deny coverage after a certain amount of treatment or if someone relapses. We would not deny a heart attack patient readmission into a hospital after suffering a second heart attack with chronic cardiovascular disease; yet this is exactly what we do when someone struggles with mental health and SUD. Recently, the Department of Energy and Commerce in the United States Congress sent out a request for information regarding these issues and labeled it, “the Wild West of Law and Policy.”

The time for talk and half measures is over. It is time to rise up and shoulder the responsibility of shifting this system toward a fairer, more just, and effective solution. Here in Palm Beach County and at the Hanley foundation, we are answering the call to action. We are working closely with the County to implement a Recovery Oriented System of Care model (ROSC), establishing RCO’s, RCC’s,  and other strategies to plug the gaps where individuals continue to slip through. The Health Care District recently opened an addiction stabilization unit at JFK North specifically designed to triage those suffering from overdose. While this is a giant step in the right direction, it is only a piece of the puzzle in the ROSC model. More must be done and the thought leadership must be brought out of Washington DC and into a grassroots movement designed to help those in our own communities. The federal government will not come to rescue us, but it is time we tell them to stop spending our money on frivolous endeavors, and that can only be done through the ballot box. The Hanley foundation is also establishing a Recovery Leadership Institute, specifically designed to bring together those who have suffered as a result of this malfeasance. These individuals include parents of loss, those who have experienced the harsh collateral consequences of a criminal justice system aimed at victimizing mental health conditions, especially minorities, and anyone else who has been affected by these issues or are just interested in creating a better society. 

We need to reduce the silos created by bureaucracy and that is why we are participating in a community listening session on July 9 at 6:30 PM EST. No politicians will be involved in this initial listening session and our panelists are dedicated to gathering the information we need to make the appropriate changes. The panelists will include the Hanley foundation, the Recovery Advocacy Project, a highly decorated African-American professor from NAMI, a Veterans’ representative from the Florida Army National Guard who is the program director of Suicide Prevention, a representative from a Latino Recovery Community Organization, parents of loss, and women in recovery. The point is that we have been divided amongst ourselves for far too long. It is time to openly admit where we fall short in diversity while simultaneously being able to have difficult civil conversations on how we can improve. We can only do that through unity, compassion, empathy, and understanding. Not only are these principles in Recovery, but I think we can all agree it is something desperately needed at this most critical time in our nation.

Joshua Horton is an attorney in Palm Beach County at The Joshua S. Horton Law Firm, PA, specializing in Substance Use Disorder Law, and is the Director of Public Policy for the Hanley Foundation. 

Joshua Horton has been appointed to multiple task forces and committees related to policy reform surrounding substance use disorder in multiple states. He has been published in top law journal articles in the country, given Ted Talks, and been featured in the media both nationally and internationally for his innovative ideas surrounding substance use disorder and the criminal justice system. The Foundation and its members promote legislation, funding, and policies that recognize and advance the behavioral health system of prevention, treatment, and recovery for all Floridians with mental illness and substance use disorder.

Contact Information

Joshua Horton, Director of Public Policy

(561) 268-2358 / Josh@hanleyfoundation.org

For more information about Hanley Foundation’s Project; The Recovery Leadership Institute, please call (561) 268-2357 or visit www.hanleyfoundation.org