Tag Archives: relapse

Can We Treat Our Way Out of This?

I was reading the obituary of a young woman named Isabella Sammartano from suburban St. Louis, Missouri, who died from a heroin overdose suddenly after being clean from opiates for 16 months.

Her obituary doesn’t provide a lot of detail, but it does provide some. It sounded as if she spent a lot of time in rehab, then relapsed each time. Finally, when she looked to be putting the worst behind her, she relapsed again and overdosed and died.

It’s an extraordinarily sad story – and it must have been very difficult for her parents to write the obituary.

It made me think of what her death can tell us. First, all addiction seems to involve relapse. I quit smoking (and started again) nine times before I finally quit for good – at 37.

But I lived through my cigarette relapses. With opiates, particularly given the amount of supply of dope on the street, getting out of treatment is like Russian Roulette. People go in, detox, get clean. Their tolerance to narcotics drops. They leave rehab and do well, then they relapse. With these drugs, and their prevalence and potency on the street, relapse too often means death.

It feels good to say, `We can’t arrest our way out of this.’ I agree. We do need expanded treatment. But, frankly, that also feels too easy.

My feeling is, when it comes to opiates, we have to arrest our way out of this before we can treat our way out of it. That’s a bit discombobulated, I know. What I mean is that we need to address supply on the street. That comes only with arrests. It seems to me dangerous to assume that in modern America people can get out of rehab and go home to areas awash in dope and be expected to stay alive, given the likelihood of relapse and the potency and controlling nature of opiates. It’s not cigarettes people are relapsing on. It’s pain pills and, especially now, heroin and fentanyl.

This is a supply story and has been from the beginning. Huge amounts of very potent opiates were unleashed on the country – first in the form of prescription opiate painkillers. When millions of people grew addicted to these pills, a lot of them looked for cheaper alternatives. Heroin traffickers, mostly from Mexico, slowly realized that these folks were a growing market and expanded their offering.

But it all has to do with supply. No treatment has much chance against a cheap and plentiful supply of potent dope.

It’s why doctors and the medical establishment need to continue reassessing how they prescribe opiate painkillers.

It’s also why we need to make Mexico a sustained priority. I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t think building a wall — or rather, more walls — at the U.S.-Mexico border is likely to do much to slow heroin trafficking. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seriously address Mexico’s continued production and exporting of this drug. Ninety percent of our heroin comes from Mexico, according to the U.S. State Department. It’s unconscionable that one country should export so much of this junk. China fought a war with England in the 1800s, twice, over this issue. We don’t need wars with Mexico, but it does seem to me that we need to make this the priority it deserves to be – and walls are a distraction from the real work that needs doing.

This young woman’s death also shows why we probably need to make much greater use of what’s known as medically assisted treatment – the use of drugs as replacements, as shields. These include methadone, Vivitrol and Suboxone – they either take away the craving for heroin or block overdoses.

It’s unreasonable, I think, to assume that addicts can go back to these same neighborhoods, where opiate supply is plentiful, without some sort of protection, some kind of shield.

The last couple years have shown how dangerous that is.

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Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland