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'It's so ingrained in society that we still punish drug possession with jail time rather than treatment.'

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the most unusual human behavior, from people hoarding toilet paper to wearing milk jugs on their heads.

There have been some fantastic examples of acts of kindness, such as NBA players donating portions of their salary to pay the wages of franchise employees laid off during the shutdown. But there have also been some less-than-stellar examples of people exhibiting stigma, especially toward addiction.

Stigma is a mark of shame or disgrace and usually based on religion, race, or health conditions like an addiction. People look down on those who use drugs, often assuming they lack moral fiber or something of that nature. It's so ingrained in society that we still punish drug possession with jail time rather than treatment. And while in the last decade, people have begun to start catching on, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how far behind we are when it comes to addiction stigma.

Most presidents have a political stance on drugs, one they pitch when running for office, and we expect them to follow through on it. Donald Trump's stance on opioids recognizes that there is a problem, and he's both promised and delivered funding for substance abuse programs. But in late February, the Trump administration took $4.9 million back from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, using the money instead to fund its COVID-19 response. And given the sudden popularity of the coronavirus as a news topic, this move was barely noticed.

In Indiana, a chief of police recently ordered his officers not to administer Narcan to opioid overdose victims. Instead, he wants his officers to stand back at least six feet from anyone who appears to be overdosing on opioids and wait for medical personnel with proper personal protective equipment to arrive and administer the drug.

Narcan reverses opioid overdose very rapidly, saving many lives each year. Should the officer be a first responder, this wait could easily mean the difference between life and death. The chief of police explained his decision to a news outlet, stating that it's to protect his officers.

Both examples show how stigma is still prevalent on a system-wide level in America. The recognition of substance use disorder as a disease process is longstanding, and drug users aren't just immoral people who can't control their urges.

Yet when the president says it's OK if these people die, and not those, it sends a strong message. When a chief of police feels compelled to issue an order specific to addicts, rather than a blanket order to stay back from all people until proper protective gear is being worn, it shows a carefully thought-out bias. These people aren't as important. They're more of a threat.

So, you can see that stigma is still a problem. Despite the stigma-free movement of the last few years and the stark reality of the opioid epidemic, stigma prevails as one of the main reasons the drug epidemic isn't going away.

Joseph Kertis is a healthcare journalist and former clinical director for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.


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