Our Opinion: Opioid crisis requires a holistic conversation

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The fight against opioid addiction is a war on multiple fronts.

As such, it is encouraging to see meetings of minds like the one held Sunday between Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington and Dr. Jennifer Michaels, medical director of the Brien Center ("Berkshire DA, Brien Center medical director, talk fighting opioid crisis," Eagle, Aug. 19). The battle to curb drug abuse and its grave consequences is as multidimensional as it is fraught, and there is much to be said and explored at the intersection of criminal justice and medicine. We applaud these two leaders for modeling this conversation.

The premise of treating addiction as a public health matter as opposed to an issue purely adjudicated in the correctional system, however, is far from a new notion, even as it can be a tough sell to those with a traditionally "tough-on-crime" philosophy.

At Sunday's event, District Attorney Harrington presented a laudable goal: "I don't want to build a community just to keep people out of jail, I want to build a community where people can thrive." Interdisciplinary conversations like the one between Ms. Harrington and Dr. Michaels can be a good jumping-off point to this end, but it must be noted that building a thriving community is a dense and unending task — one that requires more than just a physician and a prosecutor in the room.

Society has taken a great step forward in grappling with the notion that addiction and substance abuse cannot simply be incarcerated away, but it is a fatally simplistic strategy to limit the search for solutions to a unidimensional line stretching between treatment and jail time. Even here there are weighty conversations often overlooked or not properly interrogated, simply because they are just difficult conversations to have: What are the statistics for utilization and effectiveness of Section 35 involuntary commitment? Should criminal justice reform lean toward intervention with an arrest-to-treatment pipeline or should it explore decriminalization to get the courts out of the business of adjudicating addiction? Are more radical ideas like supervised injection sites worth the alarm bells they understandably set off?

Yet even these more substantive and complex meditations on the intersection of courts and treatment fail to drill down to a hard truth that everyone from social workers and educators to doctors and judges understand: Once the criminal justice system has been engaged, the systemic failure has already occurred elsewhere. Ms. Harrington is correct to point to a thriving community as a bulwark against the scourge of addiction, but to truly engage with that goal, the prosecutor and the physician must be joined by other leaders. The local employer who understands the role of boosting not just a bottom line but the greater socioeconomic fabric upon which local families depend. The teacher or principal who can probably spot risk factors for substance abuse in students, sometimes even before the kids' own families. The politician who has the vertebral fortitude to confront the issues most difficult to dislodge, from the criminal justice system to the pharmaceutical industry and everything in between.

We urge leaders to build upon the treatment vs. incarceration binary and truly grapple with the multivariate nature of both community building and the opioid crisis.

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