Since 2002, deaths caused by opioid overdoses in the U.S. have nearly tripled. In 2016, opioids were responsible for more overdose deaths than any other year on record. The effects of the drug crisis are being felt across the nation, and Madison County is no exception.
Austin Ross, who works with United Way of Madison County, is a member of AmeriCorps, an organization supported by the federal government with the goal of “helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.”
“Most cases [being brought in Madison County] about ten years ago were for neglect or, every once in a while, child molesting,” said Ross. “Now, between half and 75 percent are drug-related.”
The changes Ross has noticed in the types of convictions being brought in Madison County are indicative of an increase in opioid addiction in the community.
One negative side-effect of this increase is higher unemployment rates. Ross, who has been researching the economic and societal effects of the increase in opioid abuse in Madison County, says that most employers are unwilling to hire members of the community whose applications indicate they’ve been convicted of a felony.
Another result of the increase in drug use is the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C that occurs through the needle-sharing that tends to take place between drug addicts. To combat the spread of these illnesses, the County Health Department began a needle exchange program two years ago.
“If they’re going to be using, we at least want to stop the spread of those illnesses,” said Nancy Vaughan, the president of UWMC.
“Addicts may be breaking the law, but they’re addicts, and they need help,” she elaborated. “Putting them in jail doesn’t solve the problem. Everybody knows that, but there has to be some will to come together and figure out how to solve problems without pointing fingers and placing blame.”
From the perspective of the law, making needles easily accessible promotes drug abuse and criminal activities. For this reason, the Madison County Council voted to prohibit county employees from spending their time working on the needle exchange, and the program was eventually shut down.
This July, the needle exchange program was revived by Aspire Indiana and has been largely successful. According to The Herald Bulletin, “Aspire Indiana has collected nearly twice as many more used syringes than it has given out.”
Madison County Sheriff Scott Mellinger supports the needle exchange program despite the overwhelming majority of law-enforcement officials who believe the program encourages drug use.
“I was clearly in the minority, but not all professionals agree on ‘best solutions,’” said Mellinger. “Part of the disagreement was perception, that the program existed to decrease drug use, which was a misnomer.”
While Mellinger is supportive of the needle exchange, he believes the program should focus not only on preventing the spread of illnesses, but on offering rehabilitation to users who participate in the exchange.
“I think the program has a positive purpose, but I hope that something is developed to mandate treatment,” he said. “I support the program for what is was intended, to decrease the spread of disease. However, I believe the state of Indiana, who authorized the program, fell far short of a comprehensive approach, which should have included mandated or more access to therapy for those users who participate.”
Mellinger says that there’s no need to fear a government shut-down of the revived needle exchange program, but that it’s perfectly within reason for the government to enforce already existing laws concerning drug abuse.
“The current program is out of the government’s jurisdiction in terms of allowing or prohibiting [the needle exchange],” he said. “Although, law enforcement can still enforce the statutes as written when they come upon a participant.”