As Opioid Crisis Hits Close To Home For Lawmakers, Policies Change

By Kelly Burch 04/18/18

"For the first time ever, you’re seeing on a regular basis people acknowledge the true cause of death for people dying of overdoses.”

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy
Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy has been open about his past struggles with addiction. He believes more should be done to address the opioid crisis. Photo via YouTube

Addiction has long been an illness where the individual sufferers were blamed for their condition, and admonished to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get better by becoming morally stronger.

However, with the opioid epidemic affecting people of all socioeconomic classes—and hitting close to home for some politicians—policies are slowly changing to make addiction treatment a priority. 

“My old boss, Michael Botticelli [former President Obama’s drug czar], would say all the time, ‘you can’t hate up close,’” Regina LaBelle, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy’s chief of staff under Obama, told The Hill

“If your brother or your sister or your neighbor is dying of a drug overdose, you are less likely to want to have a punitive response, and the difference in what happened today than what happened in the ’80s reflects that,” LaBelle said.

Andrew Kessler, the founder of the behavioral health consulting firm Slingshot Solutions, remembers as recently as 2013 telling advocates for people with substance use disorder that they “had to fight for every bit of attention we got.”

“The reason we can’t get a lot of traction is because no member of Congress is going to go home to their districts and say, ‘I’m running on a platform of treating substance abuse and addiction,’” Kessler remembers saying at the time.

However, that soon changed. 

“Three years later, in the 2016 election—boom—I was already wrong,” he said. 

That change has come in part due to more people—including those in the political arena—openly discussing how addiction has impacted their families. 

“You can see it in the obituaries,” said former Rhode Island U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy who has struggled with addiction himself. “Literally for the first time ever, you’re seeing on a regular basis people actually acknowledge the true cause of death for people dying of overdoses.”

Last year, the mayor of Nashville, Tennessee spoke openly about her son’s overdose death. 

"Early this morning, we received news that no parents should ever have to hear. Our son Max suffered from an overdose and passed away,” Mayor Megan Barry and her husband Bruce Brady said in a statement at the time. “We cannot begin to describe the pain and heartbreak that comes with losing our only child. Our son was a kind soul full of life and love for his family and friends.”

Still, Kennedy said that despite the fact that attitudes toward addiction and people with substance use disorder are changing, there is still not enough being done to address the opioid crisis. 

“If it were some other illness, we would be throwing exponentially more dollars at this than we are,” Kennedy said. “We would be mobilizing significantly more federal resources toward tackling this. We would be marshaling every agency within the federal government to attack this.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.