A recent article in the Hastings Center bioethics forum caught my eye. It was titled “Removing the Stigma from Stigmatopin to Help Curb Opioid Dependence”. The author, Chelsea Cox, had created the term Stigmatopin to try to help make her case that marijuana should be used as a treatment for opioid dependence to reduce the high rate of deaths from opioid overdose that we are seeing in our country. Opioid dependence is a serious problem and creative thoughts about how to deal with this very difficult problem are welcome, but it seems to me that substituting one dependence for another misses the mark.
Another recent article in First Things titled “Dying of Despair” by Aaron Kheriaty, a psychiatrist and director of the Medical Ethics Program at University of California Irvine School of Medicine, helped me focus my thoughts on why treatment with marijuana falls short of what we need to do for those who are dealing with opioid abuse. Kheriaty’s article is focused on another serious problem in our society, the rising rate of suicides, but he connects the two problems with the idea that substance abuse and suicide are both problems that have hopelessness and isolation with the loss of meaningful interpersonal relationships as an underlying cause. While there may be some situations in which substituting the controlled use of one narcotic such as Suboxone or methadone for the uncontrolled use of another such as heroin may be an appropriate step in the treatment of some patients with opioid abuse and marijuana could possibly play a role in that type of process, the real answer to dealing with this serious problem is dealing with the reasons why people become involved with substance abuse in the first place. Without dealing with the underlying causes no other form of treatment will be effective.
That is where the church comes in. Kheriaty expresses clearly that the breakdown of families and other social relationships in our society combined with technology that encourages isolation and the tendency to define worth in terms of productivity which many are unable to achieve are underlying causes of the isolation and hopelessness that lead to both suicide and substance abuse. The church has answers for those underlying problems. We understand that we are made to be connected with each other and the local church can facilitate those meaningful personal relationships. We understand that people have value in themselves and not just based on productivity or usefulness to society. We know a God who is the source of true hope even in the most difficult circumstances.
The answer to the opioid abuse crisis in our society is not substituting one dependence for another. It involves people who know the God who gives real value and hope reaching out to our neighbors who are isolated and hopeless.