GREAT BARRINGTON >> In the beginning, there were those who thought it was just a bunch of hype, but it turns out that heroin addiction is one of the worst public health crises this country has ever seen.
Kids and adults in every town and city in the Berkshires and beyond are using heroin and it is a genuine epidemic. Slowly but surely, we are beginning to understand just how serious the problem is.
I recently visited an emergency room and had a really illuminating conversation with a staff member there who told me how bad things have gotten. Now every ER patient walks away with a packet explaining that help is available.
This summer, the emergency rooms were filled with kids, some so inarticulate that the medical staff couldn't understand what they were saying. We know that heroin may be seen as a way out for many young people who might otherwise have been diverted from addiction by summer jobs and outside of school activities.
Policymakers really don't know what to do about this mess. There is so much money involved in the sale and distribution of heroin and opioids that we are revisiting prohibition.
We have long known that the problem has more to do with demand than with the criminals who make a fortune selling the stuff. There's easy money to be made as kids who want the stuff become salesmen and women.
The crisis was at least partially solved many years ago, when the opium trade was flourishing in China, by executing users. Unfortunately, it worked.
Now we have the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, taking a similar approach and declaring open warfare on drug dealers and users. Shoot to kill seems to be the order of the day.
Duterte won office with 40 percent of the people supporting him but he is now so popular that he has an approval rating of over 90 percent. Apparently, there are a lot of people who think that the extraordinary heroin scourge calls for extraordinary measures.
Many will argue that we should be using a medical model and treating addicts as patients rather than criminals. Professionals like Dr. Jennifer Michaels of the Brien Center will assure you that this is possible.
She's certainly right about that, but we haven't begun to commit the resources needed to get started. Politicians, furiously looking for easy answers, have come up with the Narcan solution.
It is true that a lot of lives can be saved by administering this drug after someone overdoses, but that doesn't get to the real problem of keeping people off the drugs. That is a perplexing question and we need a solution.
Our district attorneys have to be very courageous and willing to tread in dangerous waters. For example, if a police officer crosses the line and becomes involved in the drug industry, no mercy should be shown.
I am told that there is a thriving drug trade in my town of Great Barrington. We have had some heart wrenching phone calls on our Medical Monday program from people who self-identify as users living here and they will tell you that the ubiquitous "everyone" knows who is selling and where they are selling it.
There are certain places in town that climb to the top of the suspects list. If "everyone knows," it stands to reason that the town officials and the police know, too.
Our tax dollars should be funding active enforcement by police seeking out the baddies, making arrests and then, with the cooperation of the district attorneys, prosecuting the offenders. I am not talking about the kids here — I am talking about the dealers who are making the big money.
Let's be clear: Our towns, our schools and our families have no bigger problem. We really have to beat this thing. We can if we really try.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.