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The national heroin epidemic has reached Maryland, where last year there were over 500 overdose-related deaths. Gov. Larry Hogan, who has already declared a state of emergency over this issue, recently announced the creation of a task force to combat the problem:

Heroin use has risen dramatically across the United States, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Maryland, a task force is looking at ways to tackle the problem.

Governor Larry Hogan placed Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford in charge of the state’s Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force.

Last week, the group concluded a series of six meetings held all around the state.

“The next step is we have an interim report that is due in mid August, and then a final report and recommendations to the Governor in December,” Rutherford tells WTOP.

He says the state wants to take a multifaceted approach: “You have to look at prevention as one of the elements, treatment for those who have become addicted, as well as recovery efforts.”

After half a century of propaganda promoting the Drug War, Americans have been conditioned to fear pleasure-inducing drugs in a manner akin to how people used to fear demons. Drugs like heroin (and methamphetamine, cocaine, etc.) are viewed as quasi-magical substances that rob us of our self-control and sound judgment — and have the potential to transform us into addicts, in spite of ourselves. In short: heroin is said to rob people of their free will. It is of course imperative that Americans address the heroin epidemic before it worsens. But we cannot begin to overcome it until we break open the long-petrified conversation about drugs and addiction. What does it mean to be addicted? Why do some people become addicted where others don’t?

The first — and perhaps the most difficult — step toward healing is to stop blaming the heroin. It is actually possible to use any drug recreationally without becoming an ‘addict’ — even powerful ones like opiates. Anyone who has ever gotten regularly drunk, yet still fulfilled their obligations, knows this — and so do the millions of people who have taken prescription opiates for pain and then successfully tapered off of them under the supervision of a doctor. If opiates were inherently addictive and robbed us of our self-control, it should not be possible to use them for an extended period of time for medical purposes without forcing the patient into addiction. But this isn’t what happens.

The difficult truth that addicts and their loved ones often don’t want to face is that it is not all that difficult to taper off of opiates: it takes weeks — not months, not years. The difference between long-standing addicts and those who taper off of them after using them for pain is that the latter group actually wants to be off of them — because they want to resume their daily lives. Contrary to what they will tell you, many long-time ‘addicts’ are not actually interested in getting clean. Once a person really wants to get clean, it doesn’t take very long — and with the proliferation of methadone and suboxone treatment centers and professional rehab programs, it is easier and safer than ever to get off of opiates. But many, if not most, people who pursue this line of treatment are those who have been caught using by horrified friends and family — or the cops — and so they need to make it look like they are making an effort to get clean — even if, secretly, they really just want to get their tolerance down so they can get high again — or perhaps they just want to keep others from getting angry at them. This is an all-too-common scenario, and it is a recipe for relapse after relapse. I know more than one person who has been to rehab more than once — and in each case, the reason for their failure is obvious: they went to rehab for others, not for themselves.

The only way to truly convince someone to get clean and stay clean is to demonstrate to them that there is something waiting for them beyond opiate use that will be better than the high. This is far easier said than done: many addicts turn to constant opiate use because they feel trapped by their circumstances and see no viable way forward in their lives. The heroin epidemic, in this sense, is really an epidemic of meaninglessness and brokenness. We’ll never begin to tackle the problem until we wake up to the fact that heroin itself is not the root of the problem — and resolve to do the difficult work of trying to mend lives that have wandered off-course.

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