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How to fight addiction [Letter]

This letter is in reply to Dan Rodricks' column in The Sun, "A long line of heroin deaths, Baltimore to New York" (Feb. 4). In his moving column, Mr. Rodricks bemoans the loss of so many lives, including that of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, to the ravages of chronic heroin addiction. Mr. Rodricks remembers some worthy people who succumbed to this addiction in Baltimore. He is baffled and distressed that addicts are jailed for their malady, rather than hospitalized and treated.

I, too, am pained by the image of Philip Seymour Hoffman, decrepit and disheveled, heroin his only friend and mortal enemy when the end came in his plush New York apartment.

Mr. Rodricks is right about treatment versus incarceration; the latter is self-defeating and destructive, the former can save lives.

But he fails to explore how addictions start in the first place. Serious addictions, not always but frequently, start with gateway drugs like nicotine, alcohol and prescription medications like the opioids given to alleviate pain. Every cigarette smoker or alcoholic will not become a heroin addict, but a lot of heroin addicts start with alcohol, nicotine or both. Marijuana, too, is complicit but the legal drugs pave the way for the illegal and potently addictive drugs to get a foothold in people whose brains crave the next, best high.

If we must begin somewhere, it should be with alcohol and nicotine. Our society's casual attitude to alcohol and the inevitable presence and acceptance of alcohol at every party and celebratory occasion sends the wrong message to children who observe and learn from adults. Alcohol is lethal to developing teen brains still in the process of being wired. Nicotine, highly addictive and harmful, sets the stage for smoking or inhaling other substances with impunity.

Another place where we should place a speed bump is at the doctor's office. It is all too easy for patients to fake pain and get methadone or oxycodone or oxycontin these days. There are many non-prescription methods to alleviate pain. In the absence of a terminal illness or an obvious physical cause like herniated discs and acute nerve compression, acupuncture, biofeedback and massage therapy may work just as well and insurance companies should start covering these procedures for chronic pain. Doctors, too, should prescribe them before resorting to the opiates.

Also, we should stop punishing the addicts. I believe the death penalty is quite appropriate for drug pushers. In my mind, these are the equivalent of mass murderers. Many "respectable" people across the world — politicians, corporate heads, businessmen and women and the banking industry — are involved, directly or indirectly, with the drug trade, benefiting enormously from the lucrative nature of this criminal activity. The drug trade spawns secondary and tertiary crimes such as murder, robbery, home invasions, kidnapping, torture, money laundering and terrorism at the highest levels.

The march to the hard drug heroin is not a sudden and speedy process. With many addicts, it happens in stages, and a society proactive at the first stage will be the only society with a winning formula for putting heroin addiction in a casket where it belongs. We must help the addicts and incarcerate and severely punish the ones who promote drugs for monetary or political gains.

Usha Nellore, Bel Air

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