At a local event that contrasted two visions to address the opioid epidemic, the superintendent of the Cheshire County jail and a policy adviser from Gov. Chris Sununu’s office promoted different approaches.
Superintendent Richard “Rick” Van Wickler presented a progressive view that emphasized treatment over drug enforcement, while policy adviser David Mara said there’s room for both.
The Tuesday morning event at Keene State College’s Alumni Center was part of a Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce series that, in recent years, has tackled issues facing the Monadnock Region, from trade with Canada to housing to broadband challenges. Chamber President and CEO Phil Suter described how opioid addiction has implications for the region’s business community.
“It’s an issue for all of us,” he said. “I bet there’s almost nobody in this room whose lives are not affected somehow, some way, by addiction or substance misuse. I know it’s in my family; I’m sure it’s in a lot of your families. It’s within your employee base, and if it’s not part of your employees, it might be one of your employee’s family members — it’s everywhere.”
Van Wickler questioned an approach he said places emphasis on putting people who misuse substances behind bars and entrusts the criminal justice system with their care. As a result, he said, the law enforcement community is experiencing “mission creep,” which puts law enforcement and jail personnel on the front lines of caring for those addicted to drugs.
Van Wickler said societal attitudes around drug misuse need to change radically, and he emphasized management of the crisis, rather than control through law enforcement. As part of that, he advocated for harm-reduction measures, such as easing state regulations that prevent those who use drugs from getting clean needles.
Though stressing that he’s not encouraging drug use, Van Wickler said the crisis can only be addressed in part, not eradicated.
“Let me tell you, enhancing law enforcement to create a drug-free society will never happen. Ever. That’s a waste of resources,” he said.
Mara, a policy adviser on drug misuse to Sununu, said he agrees that over-incarceration is an issue that deserves attention, but said drug dealers should be incarcerated because they pose a risk to public safety.
Mara did not rule out the criminal justice system’s role in treatment. He said drug courts, which have been in use in the state since 2006, have proven effective in connecting people with treatment and diverting them from prisons and jails.
“They are working,” he said of the courts. “We just have to increase the number of people that are going to drug courts, so if there are people being incarcerated that would not have committed those crimes if not for their addiction, those would be the people that we want to keep out of the correctional system.
“But the people who are selling drugs — they’re peddling fentanyl; they are causing all these deaths. Those are the people we want to incarcerate.”
The opioid crisis extends beyond the county to encompass New England and many other states in the nation. But the epidemic comes into focus at the local jail, where, according to Van Wickler, more than half of the 113 people held last week were there because of drug charges and other charges stemming from their addictions.
Among those at Tuesday’s session, it appears Van Wickler’s vision won out. His more-than-40-minute speech drew a standing ovation from mental health providers, addiction specialists, city of Keene employees and residents.
His words also seemed to resonate with the four other panelists — Amelie Gooding from Phoenix House of Keene, Dr. Chris Mills from Phoenix House of Keene and Dublin, Jackie Mitchell from W.S. Badger Co. Inc. in Gilsum and Jane Skantze from Monadnock Voices for Prevention.
Gooding, program director at the Keene treatment facility, said treatment and reducing the stigma associated with addiction should be a priority.
“We have this epidemic. We have tons of people who are addicted, and treatment works, but you have to go into treatment, and often times we have empty beds. We have empty slots. We have no one calling us,” she said.
In response to questions from moderator Phil Wyzik of Monadnock Family Services, Mara discussed other efforts to deal with the crisis. He cautioned against over-emphasizing opioids, saying the over-prescribing of stimulants is already leading to increased addiction of other illegal substances, such as cocaine.
Mara touched on the governor’s announcement of a “hub and spoke” model, which will create regional centers — mostly in hospitals across the state — that will direct people seeking recovery to treatment options in their communities. The Concord Monitor reported Tuesday that Keene will be one of nine locations across the state to have a hub.
The hubs will be entry points into local treatment options and will be coupled with a statewide 24/7 hotline connecting people with services.
The hubs will make the state’s recovery infrastructure more efficient, according to Mara. He also touted the governor’s recovery-friendly workplace initiative, which promotes policies that support employees who are in recovery. Employers, he said voluntarily sign up for the program, and a substance misuse prevention specialist works to help businesses attain and maintain the “recovery-friendly” status.
Thus far, he said, 60 businesses statewide have signed up.