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The war on drugs should be a war on addiction


The news over the last week has reinforced something we’ve known for a long time: St. Lawrence County has a serious drug problem.

Ogdensburg police busted yet another set of people for selling crack cocaine in the city. They believe these people were connected with another group they arrested in December from Buffalo that set up shop in the city.

As part of the drug raid last week, another pair was arrested for selling prescription painkillers.

These drugs are not a new problem in Ogdensburg or the north country. As long as dealers have a customer base for their products, they will prosper in our communities. And there are plenty of customers. Our communities have more than their fair share of drug addicts.

Addiction is something that’s hard to understand if you haven’t been there. People make a conscious choice to consume a substance despite the very real possibility that it could kill them. They take this substance although it very well could take their looks and money, destroy their relationships with family members, friends, really anyone with whom they don’t get high, and take away their livelihoods because it’s hard to keep a job when you’re busy doing drugs.

People make that choice because they fooled themselves into thinking that their will was more powerful than the drug they chose to take. By the time they realize they are no longer in the driver’s seat, it’s too late. They are already on the road toward the cold, hard bottom.

As long as dealers have enough addicts to stay in business, dangerous drugs like crack, heroin and prescription narcotics will be bought, sold, consumed, and claim lives in one way or another in our communities.

There isn’t an easy answer to eradicating this blight. Criminal penalties do too little to deter people from buying and selling these drugs. Police take down dealers, but it isn’t long before more pop up in their place because the demand for their products is still there.

Reducing the number of addicts won’t entirely solve the problem, but it would certainly help. Just about every addict, no matter what their drug of choice is, gets to a point when they realize they are not happy where they’ve landed. That moment of clarity might last a minute, an hour or a day, but odds are it won’t last long. When they get to that point, they need to have immediate, easy access to help.

I did a little digging to see what services there are in St. Lawrence County to help addicts. There are programs, but I found in most cases there are waiting lists. Being placed on a waiting list isn’t going to help someone who decides right this second that they want to change. If they can’t talk to somebody immediately and get the ball rolling toward treatment, addiction wins over recovery. There are only a couple of programs that even offer addicts somebody to talk to - Reachout in Potsdam, which has a 24-hour crisis hotline at 265-2422, and Step By Step in Ogdensburg, which has a drop-in center.

The state in recent years has expanded treatment programs for people convicted of drug-related crimes, but giving addicts a choice between jail and treatment doesn’t offer a solid, long-term path to recovery. The state needs to recognize that it’s even more important for addicts to have access to services before they run afoul of the law if they are to have the best chance for recovery. Combined with this is the need to expand outpatient mental health services for addicts with underlying mental health issues.

Funding for these services has been grossly inadequate, largely because the state is stuck in the idea that the criminal justice system should take care of our drug problem. After decades without significant progress, the war is being lost. Don’t get me wrong. Police are needed to take down a violent element associated with the drug trade. But even doing the best they can, the problem is getting worse.

Some of the money devoted to traditional criminal justice solutions to our drug problem would be better spent to expand existing treatment programs so more addicts can take advantage of them, whenever their moment of clarity happens. The state’s existing treatment programs should be just as accessible as Reachout and Step By Step are. It’s baffling that they aren’t.

Instead of concentrating solely on taking out the source of dangerous drugs, the state’s emphasis should be just as strong, if not stronger, on eating away at the pool of addicts that keep dealers in business by funding programs that offer them easily accessible, immediate help. They should give recovery a fighting chance against addiction.

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