Government

Presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke calls for treating substance abuse as public health issue, not criminal justice problem

Former Texas congressman talks about his plan at Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition in Cedar Rapids

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke participates in a roundtable discussion with members of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Among those meeting with him were Sarah Ziegenhorn (left), the center’s founder, Dr. Andrea Weber of the University of Iowa and Aaron “Pinky” Whites of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition office in Dubuque. The coalition hopes to have similar events with other candidates. (James Q. Lynch/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke participates in a roundtable discussion with members of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Among those meeting with him were Sarah Ziegenhorn (left), the center’s founder, Dr. Andrea Weber of the University of Iowa and Aaron “Pinky” Whites of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition office in Dubuque. The coalition hopes to have similar events with other candidates. (James Q. Lynch/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The first step in addressing substance use disorders — and the overdose crisis that claims more than 50,000 lives annually and costs the nation more than $78 billion a year — is removing the stigma around substance use, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said during a Thursday discussion with the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition in Cedar Rapids.

“That means seeing it not as a criminal justice problem but as a public health opportunity,” O’Rourke said during a roundtable discussion with coalition members at a community drop-in center.

O’Rourke’s plan focuses on investing in public awareness efforts, supporting access to treatment that enables long-term recovery, targeting the supply chain and holding the pharmaceutical industry accountable for its role in the opioid epidemic.

The goal, he said, is to stop the “epidemic of death.”

“So whether we are compelled by the moral dimension of this or the fiscal dimension, it is the right thing to do,” O’Rourke said during the hourlong discussion.

O’Rourke is not the first 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful to offer a plan addressing substance issues, but Sarah Ziegenhorn, founder and executive director of the center in southeast Cedar Rapids, said “so far, most have just given lip service to the issue.”

“It hasn’t come up in the debates despite the overdose crisis killing 75,000 people every year for several years,” the fourth-year University of Iowa medical student said. “It’s killing more people than gun violence and car crashes, so it’s shocking that it hasn’t come up in a more real way.”

O’Rourke’s visit to a harm reduction organization “takes it one step farther” than merely offering a plan, Ziegenhorn said.

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“To offer tacit endorsement to one of the key components of a strategy to address overdose crisis — harm reduction — that’s unprecedented,” she said.

The visit was important for O’Rourke, too.

He wants substance abuse to become a priority, “not just something we talk about, but something we act on,” with programs and policies developed “working with and guided by the leaders on the ground in communities like this one and those all across the United States.”

In addition to ending the stigma, O’Rourke’s plan calls for a $100 billion Substance Abuse Disorder Fund to help expand access to overdose prevention medications, such as Narcan, and ensure first responders and law enforcement are trained to administer it.

His plan calls for targeting the supply chain by combating the illegal importation of fentanyl and holding the pharmaceutical industry accountable through tighter government regulation and oversight.

The final tenet of his plan is to remove barriers for those recovering from substance abuse disorders and re-entering their communities. Policies would include “ban the box” on job applications and increasing job training opportunities.

The full plan is available here.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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