When acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died in his NYC apartment on Feb. 2 from a suspected drug overdose, we were again reminded of the indiscriminate nature of the disease of addiction. In a small state like Vermont, however, we do not need headlines about celebrities to understand the destruction that can occur with drug use. We only need to look at our parents, siblings, children, friends, or in a mirror to be reminded of the destructive nature of the disease.
We have seen and heard a lot of attention being given recently to the problems of drug use in our state. The governor's State of the State address focused on it almost exclusively. Vermont Public Radio aired a multipart story on pregnant mothers struggling with opioid dependence, and national news organizations picked up Governor Shumlin's comments and provided a larger audience that has generated inquiries from across the U.S. and abroad.
Florida has been at the center of the prescription drug problem for several years. Western states have voiced their struggle with methamphetamine. The Midwest is struggling with heroin and methamphetamine. Alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine appear to have no geographic boundaries. It now seems Vermont is boldly acknowledging its citizens' struggle with heroin and other opioid addictions.
Luckily, neuroscience is beginning to expand our understanding of this illness. Whether the drug in question is prescribed, purchased over the counter, homemade, transported from South America, or grown in Afghanistan, the common denominator of its destructive power is rooted in our brains. Moreover, just as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity affect people in varying degrees based on their behaviors, genetics, and environment, addiction also is varied in its severity and expression.
It is no longer controversial that addiction has very strong biological underpinnings. Nonetheless, people continue to cling to outdated policies to respond to the disease's expression. The war on drugs was started 42 years ago. Since then, it has entailed significant costs, but failed to deliver meaningful results. This is because the emphasis on fear and incarceration has pushed us further away from providing treatment for those who suffer from this illness. Addiction, like other chronic diseases, cannot simply be arrested, incarcerated, or stigmatized away.
Across the country each day we hear stories of the destructive power of addiction juxtaposed alongside amazing stories of recovery and continued sobriety. As a physician, the most important challenge I face everyday is providing education and combating stigma against a disease that continues to take a heavy toll on Vermonters. I am happy to find a strong partner in the governor and hope other leaders will also prioritize treatment for those who suffer from a disease that touches both the famous and the ordinary with equal severity.
Dr. Todd Kammerzelt is the unit chief for the Co-occurring Disorders Inpatient Unit at the Brattleboro Retreat.