How do you turn stigma into law? PA House Representative Bryan Barbin seems to have hit on the solution with three proposed bills that would redirect money from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement to what he believes are measures to reduce opioid abuse. Barbin recently asked fellow House members to co-sponsor bills aimed at people addicted to opioids. The proposals include:

  • Establishing regional detox centers in PA, using money from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement;
  • Dictating involuntary commitment for those who have emergency opioid overdoses;
  • Reinstating criminal liability for emergency overdoses.

As community members, we are all concerned with the recent increase in opioid overdoses and deaths. It’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed for the health and well-being of the entire community. However, these proposals are not the best tactics to help addicted people enter and maintain recovery; instead they’re more likely to drive people away from the treatment they need. These bills would:

  • Force addicted community members into involuntary commitment: The initial language is murky and it’s not clear the addicted person would enter a comprehensive recovery program. Rather it seems to suggest the person would be admitted to detox, a 3-5 day process of going through withdrawal. While detox helps manage withdrawal symptoms in a safe environment, it does nothing to help the person address the root of addiction or find healthier ways to cope with their emotions and cravings long term.
  • Criminalize addiction: Substance use disorder is recognized as a brain condition by the American Psychiatric Association. Like other diagnosable conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, or cancer, it requires comprehensive treatment and support—not jail time. What’s more, this criminalization specifically targets those addicted to opioids; consider that when a person drinks alcohol and falls down the stairs, requiring medical treatment, we, as a society, don’t press criminal charges nor do we force that person into rehabilitation for alcohol abuse. Amy Sechrist, Certified Prevention Specialist at Compass Mark says of this proposal: “This is stigma, pure and simple: stigma as a bill.”
  • Redirect tobacco funds away from tobacco victims. While smoking rates have declined overall, tobacco use is still a significant problem—one with a cost measured in both lives and dollars. Smoking remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, triggering more than 480,000 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In contrast, opioid overdoses cause about 28,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Our communities need effective strategies to reduce opioid deaths, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the leading preventable cause of death.

No matter how addiction has impacted your life, let your voice be heard. Stay alert for local or state bills of this nature. Be ready to call your legislators to let them know that stigmatization and criminalization prevent our family members, friends, and neighbors from finding help and becoming healthy, active members of our communities.  

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