Guest Op-Ed : Compassion Is Key to Addressing the Opioid Epidemic

By Jennifer Nassour

My brother died of an overdose.  When I see men and women struggling with addiction on the streets of Boston, I see my brother, and my heart breaks, again.

We all wish for a quick and easy solution.  In today’s world of convenience and instant gratification, we are frustrated by intractable problems such as addiction and homelessness.  We are right to demand action and solutions, but we need to understand progress takes both time and a change in public attitudes and priorities.

I believe the root cause of much crime, addiction and homelessness can be traced to mental health issues.  Improving behavioral health services is the only way we will break the cycle of destructive behavior.

While the medical community has gotten serious about the role it played in over-prescribing opiates for pain relief, our society needs to prioritize mental health.  We need to view a person with a mental illness with the same compassion we show a cancer patient.  Our Commonwealth needs to put the funding behind behavioral health services so treatment beds outnumber prison bunks.

Boston is in the spotlight, but the opiate epidemic is everywhere in our nation.  Boston needs to insist on statewide cooperation, and that should start with reconstructing the Long Island bridge to allow safe access to hundreds of treatment beds on the island.  

Quincy officials object to reopening the bridge because it brings traffic to its streets, but no city is an island unto itself.  The addiction epidemic flows freely across the state.  Quincy is not immune, and more treatment would help it as well.  When police swept Newmarket Square, police officials reported 34 arrests, including 21 from outside of Boston.  Clearly, this is not just Boston’s problem, and we must abandon parochialism and work together.

By opening more treatment beds, we can divert defendants suffering from addiction into treatment and avoid incarceration.  Prisons and jails are costly and should be reserved for serious offenders.  Those who commit petty crimes to support addiction should be given the chance to achieve sobriety and return to a productive life.  

They should be held accountable, but provided the long-term care they need, including appropriate post-release supervision for high-risk offenders.  Taxpayers should expect a decrease in prison spending if this occurs, and that savings can help to fund treatment, housing and job-training programs for those in recovery.

Some are advocating for officially sanctioned injection sites to curtail overdoses, with medical staff monitoring the drug users and, if necessary, administering Narcan.  I appreciate the compassion of the advocates, because we care deeply about the lives of those suffering with addiction.  However, the legal obstacles alone make this idea a non-starter.

Rather than investing time, money and energy into opening injection sites, let’s direct those resources to increased treatment options and outreach to those with addictions, whether they are visible on our streets or secluded in their homes.  We should also fund family advocates who can support the relatives who want desperately to help a loved one battle an addiction, but don’t know how to proceed.

Whether it is Newmarket Square, the Boston Common or any other park and neighborhood in our city, we see the impact of addiction daily.  The crimes committed as a result are intolerable, but they are a symptom of disease.  We must treat the disease.

Jennifer Nassour, a 20-year resident of Boston, is a mother of three and a candidate for Boston City Council District 8.

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