Counties well positioned to bear hope for those addicted to drugs

By Chris Villines, AAC Executive Director

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Oft hope is born when all is forlorn.” Taking a close look at the cover of this issue of our magazine provides a great example of despair. This level of anguish may be something most of us don’t see in a day, a week, a month or a year … but unfortunately many Arkansans feel this level of pain every day.

This manifestation of pain can come from many sources, and the impact can run shallow or deep. It can result from many situations, such as divorce, loss of life, failings in one’s career, or fiscal distress. It runs through families, and often it results in crime, abuse, jail time, suicide, or worse.

In county government, we often believe there is not much we can do about these problems for folks (notwithstanding our immediate family). I submit, however, that there are those few times and situations where we can make a difference. And I like to think that we are and will continue to do so.

The cover story in this magazine is on mental health — and the crisis stabilization units (CSUs) in our state that counties are opening up. When mental health issues present during crimes or potential crimes, our jails often have found themselves as the housing of last resort. This situation is unfortunate and does not serve the arrestee or society well.

There is hope.

I am proud of the county and state partnership and leadership in the development of our CSUs, four of which will lead a new path in trying to accommodate and turn around the problem. AAC Chief Legal Counsel Mark Whitmore and many county officials worked hard on this issue over the last few years, and the fruits of their labor are about to help good Arkansans who would otherwise be hopeless. This embodiment of serving is what drove many of you to public office.

As we build out this chapter and our potential help for the mentally ill in our state, another scourge continues to intensify, one not new to our state but growing rapidly: drug abuse. A year ago conventional thinking was that our masses hooked on opioids would evolve into a heroin epidemic, and in part, this is true. But the sad reality is that as the opioid supply begins to dry up a huge demand is developing for all sorts of other drugs — expanding to cheap and deadly alternatives such as fentanyl and methamphetamines.

As we speak, the wheels of justice are turning in the form of multiple opioid lawsuits across the country, including our own well-positioned and strategically brilliant case, which combines the state of Arkansas, her counties and cities in a state, not federal, case.

This case continues to evolve, and there are incredible similarities between the opioid epidemic and mental health issues in our state. In fact, many frequent fliers to our jails are hooked on drugs and suffering from mental illness at the same time. Unfortunately, the treatment for the two problems is disparate, and untangling the two is complicated.

As we begin to work solutions across the state on our mental health issue, I have been amazed at how far behind the curve Arkansas is on solutions for drug addiction. On a personal note, two good friends have recently sought rehabilitation for their adult children with an opioid addiction. Both living in central Arkansas, there was hope that facilities in this area could handle detoxification and rehab for these good folks. To my surprise, and theirs I’m sure, both of the adult children sought treatment in the nearest available facility, in of all places, Alabama. That’s right, two addicted people that needed long-term treatment in Arkansas wound up going to the only state with a higher opioid prescription rate in our country, Alabama, for the long-term treatment and recovery program they needed.

There are several opinions from reputable sources that give an estimate of the amount of time one needs to successfully complete such a program, and they typically range from six months to one year. How unfortunate that Arkansas does not have the infrastructure to have enough of these types of programs in our state to meet the ever-growing demand.

As evidenced by the crisis stabilization units we are working on around the state, these facilities can be created and staffed in short order, but they are only 72-hour facilities, not the multiple-month facilities addiction rehabilitation demands. I hope as we begin the process of cleaning up the mess the pharmaceutical industry has allegedly created, this is taken into account. If this case produces financial resources to fix the problem, Arkansas must start at the ground floor when many of our counterparts have existing infrastructure.

We can do this, and we will. Many of you have personal stories of someone’s despair as they struggle with addiction. What I so appreciate about our great state is that many of the same people will be the first to roll up their sleeves and get to work to create change and solutions. Just like with the CSUs, our work is cut out for us, but we have succeeded.

The opioid lawsuit is about to move very quickly — and our opportunity to change our state’s future will lie before us. County government is amazingly well positioned to seize these opportunities and just like with the CSUs, we will be on the front-line bearing hope.

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