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California Chips Away at the Stigma of Addiction

It’s not every day that a state does something compassionate and sensible for people who use drugs, but recently, California did just that. On September 15, Governor Brown signed AB 1535 (Bloom), which will allow people who use drugs and their loved ones to walk into a pharmacy without a prescription, ask for the lifesaving opiate overdose reversal medicine naloxone , get educated about its use, purchase it and walk out with it. It’s a good health practice—and it’s also making a strong statement of support that people at risk of an opiate overdose should be able to easily obtain the medicine that can save their lives. 

People struggling with chemical dependency sometimes live on the margins, where whatever problems they may have—medical, emotional, mental or otherwise--usually get worse and more expensive to treat. Telling drug-dependent people in no uncertain terms that their lives matter—that their health and their right to access the same medicines as everyone else matters—is a small but essential step in helping to save lives and connect them to mainstream health services.

California’s new law creates an opportunity for the people at greatest risk of an accidental fatal overdose to have a fact-based conversation with a pharmacist about naloxone. They can purchase the medicine that could save their own lives or the lives of others. We know this approach works. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a  landmark study documenting over 10,000 overdose reversals by laypeople who were provided naloxone and taught how and when to use it.

Like many states in recent years, California has seen the number of fatal drug overdoses grow in the more rural, isolated corners of the state, as well as in the metro areas. This law will help bring naloxone to all Californians—rural, metro and otherwise. Our state has somewhere around 5,000 pharmacies, representing an enormous opportunity to expand access to this lifesaving drug for potentially tens of thousands of residents. We now join a number of other states, including New Mexico, Rhode Island, Washington, New York and Vermont, where naloxone is being furnished in a growing number of community pharmacies.

Too often, people struggling with a chemical dependence are labeled ‘addicts’ and treated as though they are in some way fundamentally ‘less than,’ less intelligent, less human, less  deserving of compassion or help. Labels like ‘addict’ and ‘junkie’ can stigmatize people to the degree that they start drifting away from the mainstream and away from the healthcare services that can save their lives. This is an antiquated approach to helping people and thankfully it appears we may be turning a corner on it.

Recently, a number of organizations including the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy have started coming forward to address stigma by urging the removal of inflammatory labels like ‘addict’ from medicine and drug treatment research; instead encouraging the adoption of unbiased, more accurate, person-first language.  People with substance problems deserve the same basic dignity and respect when interacting with healthcare professionals as anyone suffering with any treatable condition. The new law is a powerful reinforcement of this basic principle.

Despite our best efforts, some people may never stop using drugs--but they also never stop being human beings. All people should have the same access to lifesaving medication, whether they use drugs or not.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog

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