A time to roar: New year, new decade bring new opportunities to combat addiction

By BRETT MONTAGUE,

For more than a century now, America has struggled to combat the harms of drugs. Today, we continue to suffer unnecessary drug-related losses through overdose and incarceration at alarming rates.

Right here in the Pine Belt, I have met with police officers and elected officials, among others, to learn about cases where their own families have suffered unecessary harms through death or long-term incarceration from drug use.

One case I learned about this year involves a young lady named Nikki.

Nikki is a native of Madison and the mother of a newborn child, but she has also spent recent years fighting off her opioid addiction, even during her pregnancy.

As a result of her prenatal drug use, her child was immediately removed from her custody and she was handed a 15-year prison sentence, which she is now serving in a north Mississippi prison.

Nikki is responsible for her actions, of course, but what about the rest of us?

Aren't all individual persons responsible for their own actions and reactions?

If so, then are we not responsible for our response to her prenatal drug use?

Is ripping her child away from her and throwing her in jail actually going to help?

This made me wonder, what if we changed our drug laws and enacted policy that minimizes the harms of drugs and increases thriving through second chances for everyone?

As you begin to consider this question yourself, I will go ahead and and admit three difficult, but honest points.

First, this is a difficult and complex issue and we must be able to distinguish the differences between drug use and drug dealing or trafficking. Organized crime and drug cartels are a big source of this problem and they should never be granted any clemency for being a scourge against humanity.

Next, the notion of drug policy reform will undoubtedly be a subject of national debate for some time to come – perhaps even into the 2030s.

Lastly, I will admit that this issue of drug policy reform only grabbed my attention following the fallout of real-life, drug-related cases from within my family and my work life.

And since this has become a top-shelf, personal issue for me, I've also come to realize though how many other Pine Belt families have been affected by the opioid epidemic.

What I have gradually realized is that the current overdose crisis we are facing does not discriminate.

Addiction does not care about our social status, our race, our religion, etc., and according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, we are losing 201 people a day to drug overdoses – including 130+ attributed to opioids.

Here locally, having listened and learned about some of these heartbreaking cases has only increased my hunger for the status quo to change.

In an effort to make a small contribution, I spent some time during the course of the past year forging community relationships pertinent to drug-related issues and by the time last summer rolled around, I was fortunate to have had several good discussions.

It was because of those discussions that last July I found myself as the point person for a local community opioid and drug policy summit held at Lake Terrace  Convention Center.

I worked closely with a colleague from Madison named Christina Dent to plan the event. Christina's organization, "End It For Good," is a non-profit entity that organizes community-based discussions like the one held here about drug policy.

During her presentation, Dent focuses on the prospect of ending the so-called "War On Drugs."

Initially, we talked about getting 25 to 30 local leaders together for a discussion.

To our pleasant surprise – and shock – we had 120 people from throughout the Pine Belt show up and participate in the discussion.

Participants from all walks of life came to the event, including those from political, legal, and law enforcement officials to people in the private sector including pharmacists, bankers, and mental health professionals.

Recovering addicts, family members of addicts, and members of the local religious community were also in attendance.

We even assembled a formal host committee consisting of nine prominent individuals representing educational institutions and other local businesses – including The PineBelt NEWS and its sister publication, Signature Magazine.

Although the size of the crowd surprised us, it clearly demonstrated there is an appetite for continued, exploratory drug policy reform discussion in our community.

Maybe it is because drug use and addiction has left virtually no family unaffected.

Maybe it is because, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, we have more than 3,800 non-violent drug offenders currently housed in the state prison system that costs taxpayers some $68 million annually.

Maybe it is because we know deep down that we all have our own little addictions (whether it’s spending too much time on Facebook, drinking too much coffee, or spending too much time binging on Netflix).

Maybe it is because we realize that drug addicts deserve love, compassion, and healing.

Regardless of the reason, I wonder what would happen if we changed our drug laws and enacted policy that reduces the harms of drugs?

As we leap into the new “Roaring '20's,” I challenge you to consider that question.

If you or someone you know is curious enough to join us for another non-threatening, drug policy reform discussion in 2020, we invite you to the table.

Together, we can embark on this journey of hope, healing, conciliation, and consensus. 

Montague is a Hattiesburg native and a staunch advocate for drug policy reform in the Magnolia State. Last fall, he served as emcee of the “End It For Good” summit where attendees discussed the opioid crisis and how drug policy impacts local communities like ours. His background is in human resource management and organizational development. Email him at  brettbam.716@gmail.com or on his cell phone at (601) 935-1853.