Can lawsuits, safe injection sites and needle exchanges reduce the opioid epidemic's death toll?

Camden County Freeholder-Director Louis Cappelli, Jr. speaks at a Feb. 21 press conference to announce the county’s lawsuit against some of the companies responsible for the manufacturing and distribution of prescription opioids. He said they share responsibility for the heroin epidemic gripping the nation.

I told a friend who’s nine years clean from opioids about Camden County’s lawsuit  describing major pharmaceutical firms as largely responsible for the heroin epidemic.

He rolled his eyes and lit a cigarette, much like he did when we discussed Philadelphia’s proposal to encourage the opening of a safe, medically supervised site for shooting up.

“Are you [kidding] me?” my lovably acerbic friend said, using language that was a bit more … emphatic. “How is this going to even help one addict get clean and stay clean?”

Like others in the recovery community, he and I would prefer to support rather than disparage well-intentioned proposals to do something about the merciless opioid abuse epidemic.

More than 50,000 people a year are dying of overdoses. We’re going to need more than Narcan and prayer to staunch the bleeding and dying.

“Our loved ones are being lost,” said Patty DiRenzo, whose 26-year-old son, Sal, died of a heroin overdose in 2010. A fierce advocate for reducing harm to and saving the lives of addicted people, DiRenzo spoke at a February news conference about the county’s action.

At the same event, Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. likened the manufacturing, marketing, and distribution of prescription opioid painkillers to a “scheme” by a “criminal enterprise” whose principals are akin to “a drug cartel.”

The lawsuit, he said, seeks monetary damages that would fund programs “to reduce the demand for and availability of heroin and prescription drugs,” and help leverage “additional resources” for treatment.

Meanwhile, the sort of safe injection site Philly contemplates wouldn’t provide treatment but would offer referrals to a variety of services, including treatment.

So the answer to the question of whether lawsuits and safe sites would help heroin addicts get clean and stay clean looks like: Maybe later.

Which may be too late.

My own addiction — bottom-shelf vodka was my drug of choice, although there were assorted other ingredients — nearly killed me. Treatment saved my life.

Much drama, more than one rehab, and a miracle or two also were in the mix. But treatment followed by sustained participation in the 12-Step recovery process helped earn me the incomparable reward of 11 sober years and counting.

Pretty much anyone who has gotten and stayed clean and sober will tell you they did not make a vow, or a promise, or a resolution, but instead, a decision to stop.

There may have been false starts, relapses, and reboots earlier. But at some level, at some point, a genuine decision to stop using was made. And a sustainable recovery had a chance to take hold.

So I’m leery of enabling addicts to postpone such decisions by blaming others, such as drug companies. Or by offering addicts less hazardous surroundings where they can continue pumping themselves full of the toxin that’s destroying them.

Cherry Hill’s Jay Lassiter, a medical marijuana advocate and host of the no-holds-barred  Heroin Uncut podcast on New Jersey 101.5 FM, also is skeptical of the Camden County lawsuit.

If the county is so concerned about the cost of the epidemic, he asked, then why doesn’t it support a clean needle exchange program?

Lassiter does acknowledge the public’s squeamishness about needle exchanges and safe injection sites. But he insisted the magnitude of the crisis demands a collective willingness to do whatever it takes — the same sort of willingness individual addicts and alcoholics must have for recovery to be possible.

“If an addict doesn’t want it, clean needles and safe sites and rehabs aren’t going to make a difference,” he said. “Getting just one addict clean is a herculean task. You have to be ready to embrace [recovery], and you have to work really hard to stay clean. Absent that willingness and that rigor, all the social services in the world won’t do a thing.”

Much like addicts, politicians and others may sincerely want to reduce the death toll but would rather avoid uncomfortable realities — such as the long odds facing even those who sincerely want to recover. Or the reasons why some people choose to use illegal drugs at all.

“If we’re going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at this problem, we should talk about prevention, but we don’t,” Lassiter said. “We don’t ask kids why they want to use in the first place.”

He agreed with me that some people reflexively equate any attempt to persuade young people not to do drugs with the “Just Say No” campaign then-First Lady Nancy Reagan famously launched during the 1980s crack epidemic.

The shortcomings of the campaign or its spokeswoman aside, Just Say No at least represented a White House effort to empower kids in urban areas hit hard by crack to make life-affirming, self-preserving choices.

Thirty years later, Just Say No looks positively enlightened compared with the toothless proclamations about the heroin epidemic and jokes about executing drug dealers emanating from the Oval Office.

Turns out there’s truth in the much-derided Just Say No slogan: My friend and I and the rest of us who are blessed to be in recovery do indeed say no to our substance or substances, one day at a time.

“Needle exchanges and safe injection sites,” noted Lassiter, “are for people who aren’t ready yet.”

Or as another friend in recovery said, safe sites, needle exchanges, Narcan, rehabs, and perhaps even windfalls from lawsuits may well become someone’s second chance to recover.

Which dead addicts can never do.