FSDP Joins Forces with Global Partners for International Family Drug Support Day

FSDP is proud and excited to be partnering with organizations across the globe for International Family Drug Support Day on February 24, 2017!

FDSDayv2The 1st National Family Drug Support Day was held on February 24, 2016 coinciding with the anniversary of the passing of Damien Trimingham–the son of Tony Trimingham, founder of Australia’s Family Drug Support organization–from a drug-related overdose. National Family Drug Support Day was to be an annual event to highlight the need for families impacted by substance us to not only be recognized and heard but to be supported and encouraged to speak about their concerns and their needs.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Family Drug Support, founder Tony Trimingham and FSDP Co-founders Barry Lessin and Carol Katz Beyer are joined by our friends and advocates standing in solidarity with Family Drug Support to raise awareness for the voice of the family to be heard around the world to be represented in the inaugural International Family Drug Support Day.

This year’s theme is #SeeThePersonNotTheDrug

The day is an annual event to highlight the need for families to not only be recognized and heard but to be supported and encouraged to speak about their concerns and their needs. The reality for many families is that there are limited programs and services available and many policies adversely affect families, all too often under a cloud of stigma and shame.

The objectives of the International Day are to:

  • Reduce stigma and discrimination for families and drug users
  • Promote family drug support services for families and friends
  • Promote harm reduction strategies for families and friends

In addition, the following issues will be highlighted:

  • The important role of FDS and FSDP volunteers in providing family support across Australia, the United States and the world.
  • Reducing fatal and non­fatal overdoses from drugs including pharmaceuticals.
  • Promoting the widespread availability of naloxone.
  • Promote greater inclusion of family members in the decision making process for families experiencing problematic drug use.
  • Promoting greater support and resources for treatment services.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Give a donation to help with the pamphlets, posters and badges being produced for the Day.
  • Share a photo and a story of 200 words or less of describing your loved one and we will post it on our Family Wall. Your message can be a remembrance of a loved one who has passed, a tribute to a family member’s recovery or a message of encouragement with helpful coping skills to maintain a healthy family relationship. Email us with your photos and stories and any questions you have to          Carol@fsdp.org or Barry@fsdp.org
  • Be an ambassador for change in your neighborhood by raising awareness within your community! Request to meet with your local schools, doctors, political representatives, law enforcement and clergy and we will provide you with a tool kit and promotional materials to support you in your advocacy. Talking points for communicating with the public are here.
  • Write or call your local state and federal legislators. To locate your US representative click here. Talking points for communicating with the legislators are here.
  • Invite friends, family or coworkers to share an informal gathering over food or coffee to share discussion and voice the issues.
  • Promote the Day on social media: #SeeThePersonNotTheDrug.

We welcome and encourage creative possibilities and opportunities to help you promote/plan your special event: town hall meetings, symposiums, themed collaborations with stakeholders and friends…contact us and let’s talk!

Please email us with your plans and ideas:  Carol@fsdp.org or Barry@fsdp.org

We look forward to make this event most memorable–with your help and support our loved ones will be free of shame and stigma and seen for who they are!


FSDP Brings the Voice of our Families to Aspiring Medical Professionals

IMG_1960One of FSDP’s missions is to bring the family voice to the various segments of our society that directly impact our health. So I was excited to be joined by FSDP members Brooke Feldman and Kenneth Anderson, as well as Fred Goldstein, Ph.D., Professor of Clinical Pharmacology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) to share our perspectives on a panel discussion for medical students, “The Culture and Misperceptions of Addiction”, held at PCOM on Thursday, January 5, 2017.

The panel allowed us to reach healthcare providers at the beginning of their careers with a message about harm reduction, drug policy reform, progressive treatment and recovery, and substance use as public health and human rights issues. IMG_7851The audience of medical students were actively engaged and their questions prompted discussion about the nature of addiction, co-morbidity (dual diagnosis), engaging people in treatment, stigma, policy, epidemiology of substance use, impediments to effective care, conflicts of doctors…

Ken Anderson, founder of Harm Reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support (HAMS) shared his expertise about the epidemiology and myths of substance use, addictIMG_7845ion, and recovery. Recovery advocate Brooke Feldman shared her unique perspectives on the lived experience of substance users, stigma, and the unique paths taken by people in recovery. I addressed some of the issues around the influences of culture and policy on substance users and families, and strategies for engaging young people and families in treatment.IMG_7846

Many thanks to our gracious hosts at PCOM, especially Maggie Gergen for coordinating the event, and FSDP Harm Reduction Epidemiologist April Wilson Smith for developing this event, and Co-Founder Carol Katz Beyer for her guidance.

FSDP to Address Aspiring Medical Professionals in Philadelphia, PA

14731154_10154153120499195_2687285408442853763_n - Version 2Families for Sensible Drug Policy (FSDP) Co-Founder Barry Lessin and FSDP members Brooke Feldman and Kenneth Anderson will be on a panel to discuss “The Culture and Misperceptions of Addiction” with medical students at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine on Thursday, January 5, 2017, 5:30 to 7:30pm this Thursday.   This is an amazing opportunity to reach healthcare providers at the beginning of their careers with a message about harm reduction and compassionate, evidence-based care for substance use problems.  

Said Barry, “I spent most of my career as an abstinence-only, one-size-fits-all psychologist until I became aware of the War on Drugs five years ago and began viewing drug use and people who use them through a human rights and public health lens. I realize now that using this model was doing more harm than good by reinforcing stigma and shame by blaming my clients for the lack of success in treatment. I now embrace a harm reduction, client-centric approach and feel it’s important to share my harm reduction knowledge and experience with people who will have an important impact in providing care.”

Brooke Feldman, an outspoken recovery advocate and Huffington Post columnist [link], as well as FSDP member, said, “It is imperative that all medical professionals understand substance use and its related impact on whole health and wellness.  Only through truly understanding the delicate interplay between mental and physical health, including alcohol and other drug use, medical professionals can be best positioned to practice the holistic, integrated care that is the future of quality healthcare in this country.”

Kenneth Anderson, Executive Director and Founder of Harm Reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support (HAMS) and long time FSDP member, broke down the myths and facts he plans to address at the session:

Myths and facts about substance use disorders

Myth: Everyone with an addiction dies from it unless they get addiction treatment.

Fact: 90% of people with alcohol dependence recover whether they get treatment or not. For drug dependence the rates are even higher; 98-99%.

Myth: Lifetime abstinence from all mood altering substances except caffeine and nicotine is necessary for recovery from addiction. 

Fact: Half of all people with alcohol dependence recover via controlled drinking. Marijuana is frequently an exit drug from more harmful substances.

Myth: Addiction treatment is effective.

Fact: Most treatment centers do not use evidence based treatment even if they claim to do so for the sake of collecting insurance payments. The odds of dying of heroin overdose after graduating from a 28 day inpatient program are 3,000% higher than if one continues to use heroin with no treatment.

Myth: Patients must be confronted and forced against their will into AA because they are in denial and only the 12 step program is effective.

Fact: The more people are confronted the more they will drink. Actually listening to what the client wants is the most effective approach here as it is everywhere else. Although some people benefit from the AA fellowship, others, including myself, are greatly harmed by it. I nearly drank myself to death before I left AA.

FSDP continues to be the voice of families affected by the cruel and ineffective drug war, everywhere from the meetings where policy is made to the institutions where new healthcare professionals are trained.  Stay tuned for an update after the event!  


FSDP at the Southern Opioid Epidemic Symposium

FSDP’s Co-Founders Barry Lessin and Carol Katz Beyer, and our Harm Reduction Coordinator Jeremy Galloway represented us at the Southern Opioid Epidemic Symposium held at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health this past week.

The symposium convened academic, medical, research, policy, and government stakeholders to identify and develop strategies to advance a comprehensive response to the opioid epidemic in the South and beyond.

Barry Lessin was invited to speak, and here’s the text of of his talk “The Significance of the Family in Developing Harm Reduction Strategies and Practices in the Southeast and Beyond:

15541250_1393299694023257_4760824146094682188_n“I’m an aging hippie from the VietNam war protest days when I came of age, during the drugs, sex, and rock and roll era and as a result developed an ingrained distrust of the federal government.

When FSDP was invited to join the Southern Collaborative on Opioid Harm Reduction , my initial thought was ‘Oh my God, I’m going to meet with the government to talk about drug use. I hope they don’t ask me too many questions about my past’. My worry and disbelief quickly dissolved when we got to the meeting and saw how serious the government is about attacking the opioid problem with comprehensive harm reduction …

We’re again a very divided nation, even more so in some ways, but I have optimism because of our ability to convene forums like this to tap into the brilliant minds gathered here to identify life-saving solutions to this public health epidemic.

So being here is an exciting and encouraging moment for myself, co-founder Carol Beyer, Jeremy Galloway and the 1000s of families and diverse stakeholders we represent because it’s an opportunity to be a part of process of an ongoing collaboration with this esteemed community to address the needs of the millions of families who have suffered the direct consequences and collateral damage of substance use and the existing harmful drug policies.

FSDP is a global coalition of families, professionals, organizations and drug policy reform advocates who view substance use through a human rights and public health lens. Viewed this way, Harm reduction interventions, are a natural fit for managing substance use, but have rarely found their way into family settings.

We have listened to our families, parents and users alike, sharing their lived experiences of being harmed by a broken treatment system that uses ineffective, often unregulated treatment methods, that treat people more like commodities to fill beds than patients being provided effective care.

When people relapse with other complex problems similar to addiction that require lifestyle changes like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, we don’t blame the person for treatment failures, we don’t tell them they’re in denial, or they ‘need to ready’ or they must ‘hit bottom, we don’t throw them in jail, or kick them out of schools.

With other conditions, we respond with scientific, commonsense, and compassionate approaches and we look at the treatment methods that are failing them and do more research to provide better treatments.

Families are in a unique position to directly influence the development or resolution of substance use problems because substance use doesn’t take place in a vacuum but in the normal context of family life and relationships as well as the wider culture that the family resides in.

We know that problematic substance use is a complex interaction of psychological, biological and socio-cultural variables. Prohibition-based drug policies directly contribute to a cultural narrative that views the substance as the primary problem, ignoring the uniqueness of each family, the culture it exists in, as well as the family’s strengths and resources.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel–harm reduction approaches are already in place for other conditions. We can use this knowledge to extend these benefits to implement family-friendly strategies and practices in combatting the opioid problem.

FSDP bring diverse communities together to embrace enlightened drug policies—empowering families, restoring health, saving lives. We are dedicated to identify a vision and approach that will provide solutions and pathways forward…

Our meeting here offers us an opportunity for us to engage with the communities brought together here who share the public health lens of substance use, to be catalysts for change by tapping into your knowledge as scientists, educators, and healthcare providers to eventually develop the necessary strategies and practices and the hands-on tools to offer our families to restore our health to the level we deserve.”

Families for Sensible Drug Policy (FSDP) Team Reflects on the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference

IMG_2911In early November, Team FSDP went to San Diego to represent the voice of families affected  by the Drug War at the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference. The conference is a gathering of over 1,200 activists, treatment professionals and policy makers working to reduce the harms of substance use. We gave poster presentations, spoke on panels, and staffed a very busy table in the Exhibition Hall.

It seemed like everywhere we went, people sought us out for our perspective on the latest in policy, treatment, and activism. It was clear to me that we are respected as the organization that represents families fighting for change.

Some reflections from our team:

“My life was enriched by attending the HRC conference. I encountered so many dedicated professionals in the field. The movement has grown since I got involved with the organization to a level that will make harm reduction standard for drug treatment.” – Beth Herman, FSDP Nurse Advocate

“My experience at the HR Conference gave me great hope that intelligent, hard working and insightful people are working to bring science, empathy, compassion and proven results to the Harm Reduction movements. After my experience in prison, I was not hopeful that there were efforts at work to lessen the harms caused by incarceration on people that use substances. After meeting people like FSDP’s Corrections Health Advocate Julie Apperson I now can see that there are many intelligent hard working people, both inside and outside the system, trying to lessen the harms of incarceration.” – Dale Schafer, FSDP Legal Advocate and Sentencing Reform Specialist

“The HRC conference was an affirmation for me that a society grappling with complex challenges can still find compassion, innovation and humanity under one roof.”– Carol Katz Beyer, FSDP Co-founder and Vice President

“Being at the HR conference is like a homecoming for me. It’s where I got a new lease on my professional career as a harm reduction psychologist and where I can re-connect with a supportive community and learn about the latest developments in the public health and harm reduction world.” – Barry Lessin, FSDP Co-founder and President

I personally found it to be a life-changing event. I’ve never felt so surrounded by unconditional love, and so united in purpose with hundreds of people I’ve never met. I wrote more about the opening panel here.


In the day to day struggles we all face as we try to fight against the cruel and deadly Drug War, it’s easy to feel alone and powerless. Being a part of Team FSDP at the Harm Reduction Conference made me realize that we are never alone – we are surrounded by friends worldwide who know exactly what we are going through and support us every step of the way. Together, as FSDP, we make our voice heard!

Families for Sensible Drug Policy at the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference in San Diego!

12809723_996162890465550_5205762628852637136_nEvery two years, the leaders and the soldiers in the fight for sane and sensible drug policy gather together for three days of learning, laughing, sharing, and sometimes crying.  At the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference, people from all wings of the movement – needle exchange pioneers, treatment professionals, activists, and families who have fought a drug war in their own homes – join forces.

It was my first Harm Reduction Conference, yet I felt I was among friends.  Meeting FSDP Co-founder Carol Katz Beyer for the first time was like hugging a family member I hadn’t seen in years.  No one has to ask each other why they’re there – we all share a bond of feeling, very personally, the wreckage of the drug war and the impact it has had on those we love.  

The FSDP booth in the Exhibition Hall was buzzing.  We met AIDS educators, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) members, needle exchange pioneers from states where needle exchange is still illegal, and marijuana legalization advocates.  I was especially excited with Jeannie Little, co-author of Over the Influence and one of my personal heroines, came by the table.   The heroes of harm reduction – people whose books decorate my coffee table and serve as references in my masters’ thesis – are so warm and accessible, happy to chat with a newbie and share a hug.  

Many of our members presented or spoke on panels:

“Missed Opportunities for Intervention in Correctional Facilities: Barriers to Harm Reduction Interventions and Solutions for Change”– Dale Schafer, FDSP Legal Advocate and Sentencing Reform Specialist, and Julie Apperson, FSDP Correctional Health Reform Advocate. 

“Nine Stories: The Experience of LGBT Individuals in 12 Step Rehab”– April Wilson Smith, FSDP Harm Reduction Epidemiologist 

“Red State Harm Reduction: Naloxone, Medical Amnesty and Drug Policy in the Bible Belt–Jeremy Galloway, FSDP Harm Reduction Coordinator 

IMG_3951One of the highlights of the conference was the panel on Health and Correctional issues, where FSDP Legal Advisor and Sentencing Reform Specialist Dale C. Schafer and FSDP Corrections Health Reform Advocate Julie Apperson spoke (pictured at right).  Dale talked about his experience spending 52 months in prison for growing a small amount of marijuana. It was hard to believe that such a distinguished attorney had actually spent time behind bars, and for nothing more than growing a medicinal plant to give to some friends who were sick.  

Julie spoke about her work to reform the prison health system, where inmates are routinely denied needed services. Medication is used as a weapon by guards who can arbitrarily deny inmates access to needed pills.  Psychiatric care is almost impossible to get, and even if a patient has insurance on the outside, they are not able to use that insurance to pay for needed care on the inside.  Julie’s passion for reforming prison health services led her to change her nursing career and go into the difficult world of behavioral health.  Her own son is currently in a correctional facility, and she fights for the rights of people like him every day.

The Harm Reduction Conference was such a big event that one post couldn’t hope to cover it, but one thing was clear: Families for Sensible Drug Policy is an internationally recognized voice for the families who have been affected by the senseless drug war.  Everywhere we went, leaders in the movement recognized us and sought us out.  We contribute a unique perspective to the conversation on drug policy – a conversation that all too often leaves our voices out.  

Being a part of team FSDP at the Harm Reduction Conference left me energized and ready to take on the fight!  Hope to see you there next time!  

— April Wilson Smith, FSDP Harm Reduction Epidemiologist

Chapter 7: Stigma, Harm Reduction, and the Future of Medication-Assisted Treatment

Killing Us with Stigma

At a time when heroin use and overdoses are exploding across the country, Tennessee just passed a law tightening restrictions on Suboxone (buprenorphine), one of the most effective treatment options available to opiate-dependent people.

Advocates for laws like this rely on the excuse that Suboxone is sometimes misused, which is true. But what’s missing from this equation is that its misuse can be an unintended consequence of restricting access to it. What’s also ignored is that, even when it’s misused, Suboxone is safer than unregulated street drugs like heroin or prescription pain medications.

Buprenorphine, the active ingredient in Suboxone, causes less respiratory depression (the usual cause of overdose) than other opioids because it only partially activates the brain’s opioid receptors. There are very few cases of overdose death by buprenorphine, and almost all those cases involved mixing with other drugs.

Stigma contributes to the lack of accurate information available to the public on medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and its effectiveness. It also contributes to policies that severely restrict access to those who need it most, directly contributing to the likelihood of increased diversion of these medications.

Maine’s Governor Paul LePage is pushing to cut funding for methadone clinics in favor of suboxone, despite the fact that 98% of patients in MAT programs rely on methadone and methadone is still considered the “gold standard” for treatment by the CDC.

Methadone treatment has been controversial for decades, despite studies that indicate long-term success rates as high as 60-90%. We see and hear plenty of methadone horror stories, but the media rarely covers the lives of those who have been saved by MAT (props the Gainesville Times for being one of the few to take that bold step).

Lack of Availability

Because of laws restricting the number of methadone clinics in certain areas (like the one in Indiana, which was just eased after a wave of overdose deaths and an HIV/HCV outbreak) or the number of patients allowed by clinics and suboxone doctors, patients seeking treatment are often left on waiting lists or unable to find treatment where they live.

I live in rural North Georgia, about 70 miles north of Atlanta. There are no methadone clinics and one Suboxone doctor in my county. The nearest clinic is over 30 minutes away. In eastern Tennessee there are only two cities with methadone clinics. In Mississippi there is one clinic. North Dakota and Wyoming have none. (A methadone clinic directory is available here, and a list of Suboxone doctors here)

Even in large cities with multiple clinics the wait time can be weeks or months. Having been in that situation, I know I’m not the only heroin user who never made it to my intake appointment.

The art of quitting opiates and other drugs is delicate. It has to be done on the patient’s schedule. When someone is ready for treatment, that opportunity needs to be available immediately, because next week their mind might be somewhere else. (Once, I changed my mind after checking myself into a hospital, which led to an awkward showdown with an elderly security guard and enough ativan to put an elephant out for a week)

To become eligible to prescribe Suboxone, doctors must pass a special course, after which they’re eligible to prescribe to 30 patients at a time. This limit can eventually expand to 100. No other drug is administered or regulated in this way and it creates a barrier to treatment that not only makes getting an appointment difficult, but makes office visits nearly impossible to afford, on top of the cost for the medicine.

Many patients coming off years of misusing drugs don’t have insurance, or even a job, so that money comes out of pocket. Considering the low risk of overdose and abuse (some people do misuse Suboxone–I’ve tried and got absolutely nothing, so take that for what it’s worth), and the high cost of people dying from overdoses, spending time in jail or prison, and drug-related property crimes, increasing the patient limit is critical toward making suboxone a viable route for treatment.

Teaching Harm Reduction to Counselors

In my 3+ years in a methadone program, I had five different counselors. Not only did that complicate building a relationship with someone I could trust, it put me at a greater risk for relapse. The counselor had no idea why I was sitting in front of them, aside from the notes my previous counselor had typed into a computer.

During my time in that methadone program, I was never taught about or provided naloxone, instructed what to do if I witnessed an overdose, or any other harm reduction practices. The only thing we heard was not to take benzos (xanax, klonopin, etc) which is certainly good advice, but that didn’t stop it from happening.

Even when I failed a drug test, there was no discussion about why I failed, how dangerous it might have been, or how I could have at least made the situation less dangerous.

Fortunately, I discovered SMART Recovery not long after entering that program, and learned the skills there. But from what I’ve seen, and what evidence from other clinics indicates, there’s a desperate need for methadone counselors to be trained in harm reduction practices.

One of the groups I work with, Georgia Overdose Prevention, is visiting methadone clinics across the state to train counselors about naloxone and how to administer it. When we raise the idea of providing naloxone kits to patients, a group that often has direct access to the most at-risk drug using communities, the issue is tabled until later; which boggles my mind. It seems that, even if they have to absorb the cost, their legal obligation of patient overdosing would be greatly reduced.

The fact that such an important issue is treated with so little concern demonstrates not only the need for teaching harm reduction skills to counselors and clinic directors, but proving the value of harm reduction in those settings.

Alternative and Progressive Treatments
As we continue our struggle to de-stigmatize methadone and suboxone programs and patients, there are progressive treatments that reveal promising research–and are likely to make steam blow out of the ears of some US journalists and politicians.

Heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) has been used in parts of Switzerland, the UK, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, and recently Vancouver, as a second-line treatment when methadone and suboxone treatments fail.

HAT patients are administered controlled amounts of pharmacological-grade heroin in a safe, clean setting with sterile equipment. Contrast this to sitting in a car, ducked down, seat-belt wrapped around your arm, trying to find a vein (with a needle you’ve been using since who-knows-when), praying the cops don’t roll up on you. Never mind there’s no telling how potent or what’s contained in the shot of dope you just put in your arm.

HAT can be effective for patients where other forms of MAT have failed. It has the benefits of reducing use of unregulated and unsafe street heroin, reducing crime, has better retention rates than other forms of MAT, and reduces demand for heroin on street markets–which leads to a reductions in violent and nonviolent crime. (More information on HAT from the Drug Policy Alliance, The Lancet, and the British Journal of Psychiatry)

Alternative treatments, such as ibogaine and other psychedelics, will require more research before they’re viable, but show promising results. Some long-time heroin users have reported being “instantly cured” after ibogaine treatment, but such treatment is illegal in the US, making research difficult and treatment (which might be administered by someone with no medical credentials) dangerous.

The Future of MAT and Saving Lives the Hard Way

We have decades of evidence demonstrating the success of MAT, yet stigma and legal restrictions around these treatments create barriers that are literally letting people die, suffer, and waste away in prison cells. Our nation’s ‘War on Drugs’ has literally become a ‘War on Drug Users.’

To end on a bright note, the medical and drug treatment communities are finally casting aside the old, failed methods of drug treatment in favor of evidence-based treatments–individual and family psychotherapy based on a biopsychosocial model that treats the whole person, MAT, and new alternative treatments that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

The future of drug treatment and life for those living with SUDs shows promise for improvement, but it’s going to take hard work, from many angles. Whether we’re out in the streets or in the halls of our legislative buildings we can, and with the right determination will, make it happen.

FSDP is dedicated to bringing together these resources and people to neutralize stigma, advocate for more common sense drug policies, and employ our collective power to stand up and “Just Say No” to the War on Drugs– and the stigma, pain, and death it leaves in its wake.

Chapter 6: Substance Use and Mental Illness

I first noticed signs of a mood disorder shortly after I turned 16. One month everything was awesome, life was grand. Then the next month I couldn’t even crawl out of bed for work or school. I remember hearing “Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix and thinking: That’s what I have!

I grew up with a stepdad who was physically and verbally abusive, used drugs (sometimes) and alcohol (almost always). When he was sober, my stepdad was a great guy. Sometimes I even wanted think of him as my dad–especially given that my biological father abandoned us. But in that environment, talking about my feelings wasn’t safe, and so, I bottled them up.

You can only pack so many feelings into your brain’s inner-bottle before something gives. In my mid-20s, when I found myself tossing and turning every night, butterflies kicking around in my stomach, and bad thoughts racing through my mind, I finally went looking for help.

I told my doctor what was going on: My anxiety was so bad I had physical symptoms. I hated being around people. It was impossible to form an emotional bond with anyone, even my kids. Sometime I couldn’t sleep, others I could work all night, non-stop.

She sent me home with a box of antidepressants, a sample dropped off, no doubt, by the latest pharmaceutical rep.

I tried the pills for a few weeks with no luck. I went back complaining that my symptoms were getting worse. So she wrote me a prescription for another antidepressant. This yielded the same result. After a few times of that, I gave up on doctors.

Within a few months of my last visit, I was injecting heroin every day.

When Self-Medication is the Only Medication You Can Find

Despite the “Drug War” myths I’d heard growing up, I wasn’t “hooked” on heroin instantly (and, in fact, most people who try drugs–even heroin–never become addicted). I did, however, notice an immediate effect on my mental condition. It was like someone twisted the top off that bottle and a decade’s worth of worries floated away. Heroin felt like medicine.

I was able to function for two years as a software engineer using heroin every day. The stereotypes you hear about drug users aren’t always true.

Heroin almost completely eliminated the stress of a 70-hour, 24/7 on-call work week. Later, when I began bartending and waiting tables, I relied on the excuse that being on drugs made me “more fun to be around” and better at my job (which was true to an extent, until my habit spun back out of control).

Eventually life caught up with me. Heroin is expensive. Even with a well-paying job, I was unable to support a daily habit and pay the rent. I found myself in a self-perpetuating cycle that only reinforced my need for more drugs.

When I started seeking treatment, the only options I could find were twelve step programs. I attended meeting after meeting, and nothing clicked. If anything, being told that I used drugs because of character defects and that I was powerless seemed counterproductive. It crystallized what I already thought about myself by that point: I was a bad person doomed to be an “addict” for life.

Through countless AA and NA meetings, several trips to inpatient and outpatient treatment, a detox facility, a dozen different courtrooms, and two years in prison (where I was offered no substance abuse treatment), at no point-of-contact with any of these institutions was I offered, or was it suggested I might benefit from, mental health treatment.

It was only after I entered a methadone program and started attending SMART Recovery, a free,  evidence-based alternative to twelve step programs, that a facilitator suggested I might be self-medicating mental health issues.

The tools I learned in SMART made me feel like I could take back control of my life. Through SMART’s cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and rational-emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), I learned several important skills:

  • Instead of giving in to urges or cravings to use, I could distract myself with positive activities
  • I could be on methadone or suboxone and still be in “recovery.” This was critical, because opiates did, and still do, feel like a critical part of my medical care
  • REBT taught me to dispute irrational thoughts–it wasn’t certain events that made me sad or depressed, but my thoughts about those events
  • That using once wasn’t a traumatic failure. I could slip and still keep moving forward. They differentiate between a slip, a lapse, and a relapse
  • That by changing the words I used to express thoughts about myself, my using, and my problems, I could move beyond being an “addict” to simply a person dealing with problems that I was now empowered to overcome

One of the most important things SMART taught me was unconditional self-acceptance (USA). This turned my self-esteem around and helped me survive until I was able to find effective mental health treatment. I still use these skills today, and they can be applied to more than just substance use disorders (SUD) or mental health issues.

I first noticed symptoms of mental illness in 1994. I started using heroin in 2004. It wasn’t until 2015 that I was properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It took me 20 years to even find my entry point to treatment for mental health issues which, had they been treated sooner, might have spared me that decade-long relationship with heroin.

The 2012 SAMHSA National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicates that 43.7 million (almost 19%) of adults live with some form of mental illness and that 20.7 million adults (almost 9%) have an SUD. About 8.4 million have both mental health disorders and SUDs. That means over 40% of Americans with SUDs also have mental health problems (and those are only the people who have been diagnosed).

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 40% of those with an SUD also have a mood disorder and about 30% have an anxiety disorder. They also estimate that genetics constitute 40-60% of a person’s risk for developing a SUD. So what about the rest?

Good News, It’s Not Your Brain — It’s Your Everything
For many years addiction was treated as a “brain disease.” This model presumed some people were “wired” to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, powerless victims with no ability to control their behavior. This was the standard belief in most of the drug and alcohol treatment community for over half a century.

But recent research (and in fact, some that dates back to the 1970s) paints a much more complicated picture. The brain does play a role in SUDs, but there’s more to a person than just their brain, and the same holds true for people who use drugs.

Data from NIDA and the CDC indicate there are a number of contributing factors to substance misuse, including emotional trauma, physical or sexual abuse, poverty, social pressure, and more. The “psychobiolsocial,” model provides a better explanation for why some people are at greater risk of developing an SUD than others.

Dr. Andrew Tatarsky, in his article “We Don’t Treat Brains, We Treat People,” describes a more comprehensive approach to managing SUDs. He writes that:

Accumulating data and clinical experience support a “psychobiosocial” model in which biology and behavior intersect with meaning and social context in complex ways that are unique to each person and give rise to the problematic and addictive behavior.”

Psychotherapy, which focuses on the patient’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being, is a critical component of treatment for people with SUDs and mental health disorders. Instead of focusing strictly on the brain, psychotherapy also addresses physical, social, and environmental causes. Tatarsky describes his approach as “a personalized treatment for substance misuse and addiction that goes beyond the one size fits all model of abstinence.

Connecting the Dots
As my experience demonstrates, finding effective treatment for mental health disorders or SUDs is not easy. While more effective treatments are becoming available, connecting patients to those treatments remains a problem.

From a policy level we must, at a minimum, provide better opportunities for mental health screening and treatment at every point of contact with the medical, drug treatment, and criminal justice systems. It shouldn’t take over 20 years for someone to find help, especially given my multiple encounters with all three.

We need funding for mental health programs and evidence-based treatment programs, but we also need an integrated approach to treatment for SUDs and mental health issues. We need more effective educational resources so that when people recognize symptoms, like those I first noticed as a teenager, they know where to turn and aren’t afraid to ask for help.

Life for those of us with co-occurring mental health issues and SUDs is especially dangerous, especially when it comes to suicide and encounters with police, not to mention overdose. There are effective treatment options out there, but without resources that make them accessible, most of us with co-occurring disorders might never find our way to a “normal” life.

More resources:

More from NAMI on Substance Use Disorders and Mental Health Conditions: http://www2.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Inform_Yourself/About_Mental_Illness/By_Illness/Dual_Diagnosis_Substance_Abuse_and_Mental_Illness.htm

NAMI Dual Diagnosis Fact Sheet: http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/dualdiagnosis_factsheet.pdf

Harm Reduction Psychotherapy: A New Treatment for Drug and Alcohol Problems, by Dr. Tatarsky

Practicing Harm Reduction Psychotherapy, Second Edition: An Alternative Approach to Addictions, by Pat Denning

Chapter​ ​5:​ ​Disease​ ​Transmission:​ ​HIV​ ​and​ ​Hepatitis​ ​C​ ​are​ ​Still​ ​Killing​ ​Us 

HIV and Hepatitis C (HCV) are nothing new in the United States. Most of us have heard about them; but not many of us know much about them. Both still represent a major health problem in our country.

I used IV drugs for over a decade. During that time I shared needles with other people. I was naive, though, and thought that if I only shared with people I “trusted” I’d be in the clear. You know what they say about hindsight. Even if those people were careful, and only shared with people they “trusted,” it only takes one bad link in the chain to infect the whole bunch–and that’s just what happened.

When I entered a methadone program that I was forced to confront HCV. Most methadone clinics run diagnostic blood and urine tests to check for HIV, HCV, STDs, etc. My liver enzymes were slightly elevated, but I did some research on the Internet and convinced myself I was probably OK.

Fortunately, my spouse wasn’t so blindly optimistic. She ordered me a home test kit. I’ve never been afraid of needles, but the finger-prick device that came with that kit, and the subsequent effort to squeeze enough drops of blood from my finger to fill the little circle is an scene I’ll probably never forget.

We sent the test off in the mail, I said a silent prayer, and went about my business.

A week later I received a phone call. You know the one. “Call this number for more information.” The call that means you’re not in the clear. That you’ve got problems, and it’s time to face reality.

Fortunately, I was privileged enough to be covered by my spouse’s insurance. I was able to get an appointment with one of the best liver doctors in the state, who performed a liver biopsy to confirm I did have HCV.

The treatment medications at the time were nothing short of terrifying. Interferon injection and ribavirin, which are only successful about 50% of the time for the most common HCV genotypes, were described to me as “six months of having a really bad case of the flu.”

By a stroke of luck, which I also attribute to the privilege of being in a certain social class and of a certain race, just as I was filling my interferon prescription I got called back to the doctor. They were running a clinical trial for a new drug and I fit the profile.

I hesitated. I had a close friend die during a clinical trial for asthma a few years earlier. But it turns out I made the right choice. The medication had no side effects–to the point my nurse was positive I was on the placebo (and as such I skipped the last two weeks of my regimen–oops!).

That medication is now marketed as Sovaldi (Sofobsuvir). It’s a miracle drug–if you can afford it. A 12-week regimen of the drug runs anywhere from $84,000-94,000. Many insurance providers won’t cover the cost, which leaves interferon, with all its miserable side-effects and partial success rate, the only option for the less privileged.

This comes at a time when HCV statistics are on the rise in many places. The CDC estimates that 3-million people in the US have HCV and only 1 in 10 infected people are aware they have the disease. It can sometimes take years for symptoms to appear, at which points it might be too late. It’s estimated that about 15,000 Americans die every year from HCV.

There have been recent outbreaks of HCV in rural areas like southern Indiana and Central Appalachia, where infection rates have more than tripled.

Most people contract HCV by sharing needles. Bleaching, boiling, or rinsing them out will NOT remove the virus. This is why needle exchange programs and syringe access are so important.

HIV gained public attention in the 1980s. The AIDS panic is one of my earliest memories. At the time very little was understood about the disease. I remember my mom flipping out because someone at the group home where she worked shared food from her plate from me. Everyone was scared of contracting it and, of course, the gay community that suffered most from the outbreak was marginalized and stigmatized even more than they already were thanks to myths and propaganda. The federal government paid very little attention until the disease reached epidemic proportions in the late 80s.

Despite perceptions that HIV and AIDS are no longer a problem in the US, they still have a devastating effect, especially in communities of color. Here are some of the more troubling HIV statistics from the CDC and the aids.gov website:

  • More than 1.2 million people are living with HIV in the US and 1 in 8 unaware of their status
  • More than 658,000 people in the US have died from HIV
  • About 50,000 new HIV cases are diagnosed each year
  • Black Americans account for 44% of new diagnoses each year
  • In 2012, almost 14,000 Americans died from HIV
  • Injection drug users represent 15% of those living with HIV

In response to the government’s failure to address the AIDS crisis, on-the-ground, grassroots organizations like ACT UP, AIDS Brigade, and Urban Health Study took matters into their own hands. Groups like these formed the nation’s first needle exchange programs, advocated (sometimes militantly) for AIDS research funding, and offered HIV and HCV testing for at-risk communities (ACT UP is still pushing for a 0.05% tax on certain Wall Street transactions to fund AIDS research and provide universal healthcare). This was effectively the birth of the US harm reduction movement.

Harm reduction groups in many US cities operate needle exchange programs, which has helped reduce transmission of HIV and HCV. In most areas these programs operate in a legal “gray area,” where the distribution and possession of syringes without a prescription might be illegal, but law enforcement often turns a blind eye (in fact, some law enforcement organizations have been surprisingly supportive of these programs).

In Georgia, where I live, it’s illegal to possess a syringe without a prescription, but drug stores–at the pharmacist’s discretion–can sell them to anyone. When I was using, thanks to the myths that circulate in drug using circles, I thought there was only one pharmacy in Atlanta where we could by syringes. Sometimes were weren’t even able to scrape together the spare $3 to buy a pack. I used the same syringe for 3-4 weeks sometimes, and my arms have the battle scars to prove it.

It’s ridiculous, given what we know, that access to clean syringes is so limited. This is an area where groups like FSDP can have a real impact by educating vulnerable populations and advocating to decriminalize possession of syringes, legitimize needle exchange programs, and even grant immunity for syringes with small amounts of drug residue.

It’s difficult to understand how anyone can be opposed to such measures (though some still are [trigger warning: picture of syringes]). Given their record of success–and their amazing accomplishments against all odds–harm reduction and needle exchange programs should not only be decriminalized, they should be publicly funded at a Federal level.

I’m well over my word count, but if you readers get anything from this, I hope that you’ll realize: 1) HIV and HCV are still major health problems in the US and; 2) Harm reduction groups provide a model for filling in gaps when the government fails to provide. At FSDP, we have the collective power to push for policy changes at the state and federal level and coordinate with harm reduction groups out on the front line, risking their freedom, to help victims of the “War on Drugs” survive another day.

More about Sovladi (Sofobsuvir), for treatment of Hepatitis C:

CDC Incarceration Fact Sheet on Hepatitis C:

CDC Basic HIV Statistics:

More on the Hepatitis C Outbreak in Appalachia:
http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/05/health/appalachia-hepatitis-c-rates/ [trigger warning: needles]
More on the Recent HIV Outbreak in rural Indiana

More on ACT UP and the Beginnings of Harm Reduction in the US:

Database of syringe access laws in different states:

Other Good Resources:

Day 4: Naloxone Access and 911 Medical Amnesty (2/2)

Picking up where we left off yesterday, there’s room for optimism when it comes to naloxone access and 911 medical amnesty laws, but we still have lots of work ahead of us.

I’d like to see a recovery scene where not only is naloxone provided to opiate users in any type of treatment program, but where methadone patients are provided naloxone, with training in its use, when they enter a program. The same goes for rehab facilities. Every rehab should have naloxone on site in case of an emergency. And, of course, methadone programs, rehabs, and drug courts should be required to provide (or at least offer) naloxone and educate patients/clients about it when they are discharged from theirprograms.

All this comes at a time when opiate overdose deaths show no sign of slowing down. We have a social obligation to provide naloxone to at-risk communities and to empower those most in need, whether they’re ready for recovery or not. Groups like FSDP can make this a reality.

The naloxone access laws that have been passed in many states are a great start, but from a policy and grassroots level, we need more:

  • We need affordable access to naloxone and networks capable of getting it in the hands of those who need it most.
  • Methadone clinics must provide naloxone, even if patients have to cover the cost (which isn’t ideal and creates a barrier to treatment). It boggles my mind that methadone clinics aren’t already doing this. I’m not familiar with the internal workings of methadone clinics, but it seems that distributing naloxone to patients would reduce their legal liability if a patient does overdose and help educate the drug using community about naloxone and harm reduction.
  • Rehab programs and drug courts, especially those that impose an abstinence-only protocol, should be legally required to provide enrollees with naloxone. I believe their failure to do so is a contributing factor to many opiate overdoses. With what we now know about naloxone and the risk of overdose after a long period of abstinence, these programs should be held accountable to some degree.
  • As family members and advocates, we need to hold these institutions accountable. Not only methadone clinics, rehabs, and drug courts, but our entire legal system. The treatment provided in most state correctional systems is archaic and abysmal. It sets those who come into contact with the legal system for failure, which has given birth to an endless cycle of recidivism that can only be escaped with a strong support system and effective treatment.

On a brighter note, as of April 2015, 25 states have naloxone access laws, 19 have 911 medical amnesty laws, and 17 have both. That’s quite a disparity, and there are still quite a few states missing from the picture, but the tide is turning.

The primary argument against these laws is that they will increase use or make drug users “careless,” relying on emergency services to “save” them. This has proven not to be the case. There has been no measurable increase in misuse of opiates in states that have passed these laws, despite unsubstantiated rhetoric from some journalists and politicians.

Georgia’s laws were enacted in April 2014. Since then, the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC) and Georgia Overdose Prevention (GOP) have worked to train and equip law enforcement officers (who are often first-responders and have been surprisingly supportive of the laws) with naloxone. We also distribute naloxone to at-risk communities.

As of July 2015, over 260 overdoses were reversed with naloxone distributed by AHRC and GOP. Twenty local, county, and college police forces are now equipped with naloxone, and 35 overdoses have already been reversed by law enforcement officers. Maybe not all those victims would have died, but that’s almost 300 people in Georgia alone who now have a second chance.

People use drugs for a host of reasons. Sometimes they’re self-medicating mental health issues or emotional/sexual trauma. Sometimes they have pain can’t be managed with prescription medications. Sometimes they’re using prescription pain medications as prescribed and their doctor decides to cut them off because of stricter government regulations–and so they turn to alternative sources that aren’t regulated and are, therefore, even more dangerous.

Despite the different paths they take to misusing substances, they all share one thing in common: their lives have value.

In my work with overdose prevention, I sometimes see stickers or banners that say “Every overdose victim is someone’s child.” That may be true, but that’s not the whole picture. Their life doesn’t have value because of who cares about them, but because of who they are. Drug users’ lives have value they are human.

Naloxone access and 911 medical amnesty laws have come a long way in the last few years, and the future looks promising; but as those skyrocketing overdose statistics demonstrate, it doesn’t stop here. We have a long road ahead of us.

What can we do to more effectively get naloxone into the hands of those who need it most? How do we make sure that when someone witnesses an overdose they don’t fear calling 911 because they’re not sure what the law is and they don’t want to risk going to jail?

And how do we take these laws further, to remove confusion, create consistency, and make conditions safer not only for drug users, but for sexual partners who might be at risk from disease, police who might be at risk from being stuck by infected needles, and the parents and loved ones who worry whether tonight will be the night they get that phone call and hear that they’ve lost someone they care about to an overdose that could have been prevented?