At Thomas Law Offices, we’re proud to take part in an annual scholarship campaign aimed to help students chase their dreams and build a brighter future. The Fall 2018 submission period just came to a close, and we were truly humbled by the overwhelming amount of applications we received. The quality of the essays we received was outstanding. Thank you to everyone who applied!
We’re pleased to announce we’ve chosen a winner.
Congratulations to Yu Ying Mei of New York!
Yu is a pharmacy student at St. John’s University in Queens, NY.
This was the essay topic:
“If you could do one thing to help reverse the opioid epidemic in the U.S., what would it be?”
This was her winning essay:
How to End the Opioid Epidemic
Have you ever seen that viral picture of a couple passed out after overdosing while a child is sitting in the backseat confused, scared, and traumatized? Well, for many kids today, such tragedy is their everyday reality. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 115 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. That number is certainly alarming but what’s more alarming is 259 million prescriptions for painkillers were written in 2012, which was enough for every American to have a bottle of pills. It’s no secret that the opioid crisis is a significant growing public health emergency in the United States. Illicit drug use has been heavily stigmatized with a burden of shame and the fear of being incarcerated makes people less likely to seek out for help. The “One Strike, You’re Out” law disqualifies public housing to those with criminal histories, which makes it harder for people with substance use disorders (SUD) to find affordable housing leaving many of them homeless and helpless.3 Drugs have “hijacked” away their minds, lives, friends, and families. Addiction is a chronic brain disease and it certainly won’t be easy to treat. However, if we change our mindset and laws to the decriminalization of drugs like Portugal, perhaps we may also win the war on drugs.
You might argue it’s a paradox to decriminalize drugs, as it’s easier to throw addicts into a prison cell so they can learn their lesson and bear the pain of shame alongside with a criminal record that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. However, decriminalization isn’t the same as legalization. Drugs would still be illegal but instead of using laws of enforcement to flood prisons with drug addicts, we should simply confiscate the small quantities of drugs (less than 10 days worth) and give them administrative offense like a traffic ticket. So people would at least consider calling for help when they see someone unconscious after overdosing without the fear of being arrested. After a decade of battling with drugs, a drug-free society is just not possible, at least not yet. Conservatives might fear that abuse would skyrocket if we followed Portugal’s decriminalization model. Yet statistics showed their model that has been in effect for 16 years was effective especially in the death rates. Portugal had less than 50 times the amount of drug-related deaths as that of the United States in the past years.
Enforcement can solve the opioid crisis for a short term but it won’t solve any of the underlying long-term consequences such as higher health care costs, infectious disease, and drug related crimes. In hopes of stopping this deadliest drug overdose crisis in human history, many states have passed laws for tougher and enhanced penalties such as increasing prison sentences for opioid possession. However, that only triggered more drug-related deaths because according to studies, overdose peaked during the first few weeks of release. Accidental overdose was usually the cause of the high death rates due to decreased tolerance from reduced drug exposure. Others have simply lost hope and chose to end life because their lives have drastically changed. Many faced financial problems, mental problems, and even barriers to health care. This vicious cycle of relapse and drug abuse just isn’t easy.
Of course, Portugal’s success wasn’t due to decriminalization alone. Portugal’s public health efforts have also helped saved the country from their opioid and HIV/AIDS crisis. While the government educated the public with the focus on high-risk groups, the Health Ministry went out to pass needles to urge drug users to try out methadone, an effective drug that is considered the “gold standard” in treating narcotic addiction by the World Health Organization.6 Methadone was also accessible through vans that go around the streets of Lisbon daily. Drug users would have access to free treatments. That way, they wouldn’t have to steal and commit crimes just to get access to illicit drugs that won’t be anywhere as safe as methadone. As a result, HIV caused by injections fell by more than 90 percent in Portugal. Hepatitis was also covered 100 percent by the Portuguese government leading to an astonishing 96 percent full recovery in those who have completed treatment. As for America, if we invest more funds in treating drug users with addiction disorders, many lives may be saved.
Some people might argue that this epidemic stemmed from the overprescribing of opioids by health care providers since prescription opioid sales quadrupled from 1999 to 2014 with no significant change in the amount of pain. It is indeed one of the significant contributing factors as nearly 80 percent of heroin users have started with prescription opioids. However, when you put yourself into the shoes of a physician, there are only so many choices you can choose from to help patients relieve their chronic pain quickly and effectively. Alternative pain management services such as acupuncture and massage therapy won’t provide immediate relief and most insurances are reluctant to cover such services that are not clinically proven. Nevertheless, that can’t be the excuse to the startling number of prescriptions written annually. There should be a program implemented in which non-cancer patients are drug screened prior to being prescribed an opioid. Even after prescribing, physicians should follow up with their patients regularly with ongoing monitoring to make sure they don’t collapse into the pitfall of addiction. Physicians should also have access to a prescription-monitoring program to make sure they aren’t over-prescribing. For example, in New York, there is a prescription monitoring program called I-STOP, or Internet 24 system for Tracking Over-Prescribing, which establish mandatory e-prescribing of controlled substances and gives access to both physicians and pharmacists about patient’s prescription history.
When solving national and global problems like the opioid crisis, it all comes down to one problem of money. Although Congress passed a new two-year budget deal of $6 billion this year to deal with the crisis, experts argued that it is simply just not enough. If we treat addiction as a disease and invest more into it like other illness such as HIV, the total economic burden wouldn’t be as high as $78.5 billion in 2013.10 Addiction isn’t a crime but some people treat it like one and dehumanize drug users because addiction can lead to crimes. Addiction is a “chronic brain disease that has a potential for both recurrence and recovery.” You can’t expect drug users to recover after a month of opioid rehab because it’s a chronic disease in which it will have to be managed for a lifetime like diabetes and hypertension. Just like how patients’ blood sugar or pressure can fluctuate causing them to experience unwanted symptoms, drug users will have an imbalance of dopamine causing them to experience signs of withdrawal.
One big difference between Portugal and the United States in this crisis is opioid treatment is the standard in Portugal whereas it’s often difficult to access in the United States. Society need to destigmatize and change their views about drug users because people can and do recover. If we stop fearing and judging like we did with HIV and cancer in the past, there will ultimately be a cure. How can drug users possibly accept themselves when we as a society can’t even accept them? Yes, it is their fate and they have chosen this path but some people didn’t even have a choice. For example, some newborns were just born addicted to opioids because their mother had taken them during pregnancy. Other times, it could be worse in which babies are born with birth defects. We must change our attitude and perspective and help those in need.
In conclusion, this will be a long journey, as most drug users will have to fight the disease of addiction for a lifetime. The obvious solutions are to prevent more people from getting the disease and treat those who have the disease. This will require all of society to work together by advocating for more affordable and accessible effective treatment programs. We need to provide tools for them to turn their life back around and let them know that they are not alone. So the next time you see a drug addict, instead of looking down on them, encourage them to seek therapy and help them leave their world of darkness.
For more information on our next scholarship period which will be for Fall 2019, please see our law firm’s scholarship page. Congratulations again, Yu Ying Mei! May all your dreams come true.