FIGHTIN' WORDS

GUILT Trip

Council opioid discussion goes sideways

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The discussion of opioid abuse, overdoses, and all that goes with it has been part of the national discourse since the 2016 presidential campaign.

Candidates from both major parties traipsed to New Hampshire, where opioid abuse had already been recognized as a major public health issue, and there were across-the-board commitments to Do Something.

Not everyone took such assertions at face value. Some with long memories noted that such concern was not extended to the victims of the crack epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s—a dizzying era that had the effect of bombings on the black community, setting off as it did a pell-mell scramble toward mass incarceration, with President Bill Clinton especially happy to do the heavy lifting that helped give us the prison-industrial complex we all love today.

And, contra much of the rest of the world, and even the parts of the country still not operating under new-school Jim Crow, the politicians didn’t look at the bodies clogging up the rescue units and the bodies piling up in the morgues and see the prima facie evidence that the ZERO TOLERANCE era isn’t working.

That the Drug War failed—except as a job program for amped-up cops in the field, as busy work for the hicks in the sticks that work at the prison instead of the mill and the factory, and as a way to pump up stock prices and dividends for the exquisitely lobbied-up private prison companies, such as GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Correctional Corporation of America).

The body count exposes the lie that some of us saw 30 years ago: The jihad against weed, as thrilling as it looked on Cops, was not worthy of the hysteria of Drug War Inc.’s rhetoric.

Now we have something that is, though. We know that fentanyl, cheap and widely available, is worthy of an actual war. It and its derivatives are killing people, and the trend looks like fentanyl will gradually displace heroin as the drug of choice for the bottomed-out gaggles of people slumped against seemingly every building Downtown.

Yet there are no raids, no searches, nothing. When folks overdose, they get put into an ambulance or squad car and given some Narcan. And the cycle repeats.

Estimates this year place costs for transport for overdose victims in Jacksonville alone at close to $5M—or roughly 1/200 of the city’s general fund budget. Already this year as many overdose victims have been transported throughout the greater Jacksonville area as there were in all of 2015. And not all of those victims live: They are dying at the rate of two a day, making the murder rate look small in comparison.

In this context of death and destruction, Jacksonville City Councilman Bill Gulliford carried a bill to start a $1.5M, six-month residential opioid treatment program. Those who overdose and are brought to an ER (which at this writing could be St. Vincent’s in Riverside, but it’s not firmed up yet) would be routed into residential treatment programs with the goal of helping these people clean up.

It won’t work for all of them, of course, and until the program is instituted, it’s anyone’s guess whether it will even help half of them.

But the current situation is untenable.

Council did pass this legislation, but floor debate was nasty because a lot of people wanted to remind Gulliford, who backed the wrong candidate in the council presidency race, that he has no stroke anymore on council.

And the nastiness was directed, improbably, at the addicts themselves.

Councilman Danny Becton deemed Gulliford’s legislation a “guilt trip.” Gulliford, said Becton, was trying to “guilt council members to death over people dying.”

“I’m not going to be guilted into pressing the green button,” the Baymeadows Republican vowed—and he stuck to his word, the lone ‘No’ vote.

Others settled for rhetorical violence before voting ‘Yes.’

Councilwoman Katrina Brown said “death is death,” noting that people in her district die from all kinds of things and that overdose death is just another way to go.

That’s true to a point.

But in the case of Becton and Katrina Brown and a few other councilmembers who decided to beat the bill up like a piñata, the concept of fiscal restraint was used as cover to score some personal hits on the bill sponsor—whom they’d seen as marginalizing them for the preceding two years.

And overdose victims and the EMTs who spend so much of their shifts trying and often failing to save them? Collateral damage in a war of egos.

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