April 17, 2021 07:57

Rural Sheriffs: ‘We Can’t Arrest Our Way Out of the Opioid Crisis’

Across America, opioid misuse and addictions continue to pose a constant threat to American lives, with 130 people in our nation dying of an opioid overdose daily, according to The National Association of Counties . But, the full extent of the American drug problem doesn’t stop there as its impacts on rural communities is much deeper, and often — more deadly, Agri Pulse reports. 

The sharp rise in opioid-related deaths in rural communities has skyrocketed over the past years with many experts and lawmakers blaming a lack of support to the sufferers, as well as the lack of treatment options in non-urban communities. 

Orange County Sheriff William Bohnyak is no stranger to the opioid epidemic, he explains to Agri Pulse. He and his team have dealt with “the plague” that has infected not only his county but numerous other rural areas around the country.

“What I’ve found over the years … these drugs, especially the opiates, there’s no discrimination,” Bohnyak told Agri Pulse. “Doesn’t matter what color your skin is, whether you are male or female, young or old, it doesn’t matter … there’s a wide variety of people who are using these drugs.”

Dr. Arun Gupta, a rural Michigan physician specializing in opioid addiction, shares this sentiment. In an interview with News India Times, Gupta said that he’s seen the “catastrophe” of opioid addictions “ripping through communities with scant regard for race, gender, educational level, or financial standing.”  

Gupta is also an advocate for the Indian-American community, which is “by no means isolated” from the death that grips Michigan communities. 

Since the pandemic hit, Bohnyak explains the opioid crisis has become more noticeable and prevalent in his community. Neighbors have noticed and reported suspicious activities such as cars coming and going from certain houses — and despite residents being laid off from work, Bohnyak has found that they are still finding ways to financially support their drug addiction. 

On the Arizona border, Mark Napier, the outgoing sheriff of Pima County and soon-to-be chief of staff for the Cochise County Sheriff Department, has seen a parallel threat to the opioid epidemic — the fact that the drugs that are coming into his rural community are coming over the US.-Mexico border. 

Napier also discusses the financial weight of supporting a drug addiction in a rural community during the pandemic, but says in his Arizona-town specifically, it’s easier on the wallet as meth is as cheap as $10/gram, whereas, in rural counties in Ohio, that same gram of meth will cost anywhere from $40-$80. 

See Also: Spike in Opioid Deaths Tied to COVID-19

Bohnyak says more resources and funding are needed in rural America to help those addicted.

“Most of the funding and resources are sent to urban areas for treatment and prevention,” he said, “since there is a higher concentration of drug use and distribution in those areas.”

To that end, research shows that people in rural areas are using the drugs the most, but because of the geography of their location and typically lower populations in these towns, sufferers do not have the proper access to extensive treatment centers or resources to overcome their addictions, Agri Pulse explains. 

Punishment is Not Treatment

Both Bohnyak and Napier emphasized the problem cannot simply be solved through the criminal justice system alone. 

“We cannot arrest our way out of this,” Napier said. “As long as there are people in the U.S. demanding drugs, the drugs will continue to come across the U.S. border.” 

Bohnyak added that there’s an even greater need for “a balance with the judicial system and the drug addicts.”

“You can’t just take a drug addict and put them in prison for 30 days without starting some sort of treatment program. We’re setting people up for failure,” Bohnyak told Agri Pulse. 

In New York, the Buffalo and Niagara Falls rural courts knew that the traditional way of criminal proceedings was insufficient to provide the proper interventions for people facing opioid-related charges throughout Erie and Niagara counties. 

Because of this, officials created an Opiate Intervention Court, the first of its kind nationwide, to offer defendants a chance to delay their legal case to receive addiction treatment, the Buffalo News reports. 

If the defendants successfully completed their programs, they could receive a break in their criminal sentence. 

Moreover, the National Association of Counties (NAoC) has conducted research on the opioid epidemic, specifically focusing on the multistate rural area surrounding the Appalachian Mountains, and has found that the best solutions for helping those with addictions in places that don’t have geographical advantages of large or comprehensive treatment programs are to educate community members and talk to local leadership. 

The NAoC also recommends “strengthening preventive educational initiatives, creating safe disposal sites or needle exchange programs, working with parents and families to talk with their children about the impact of drug addiction, and increasing access to telehealth services to help individuals in rural areas have greater access to mental health services,” according to Agri Pulse. 

Similarly, Gupta told News India Times that he’s been talking to Michigan elected officials trying to leverage their influence and push the local government to “rethink the limit of patients” and to allow for “greater access” of treatment options for people who want to overcome their addictions. 

“Addiction,” Gupta warns, “has become synonymous with a death sentence in this country.”

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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