Talking about the elephant in the room: The Opioid Crisis

By SARAH MARTIN, News Editor

“When we talk about an Opioid Crisis…it’s been a crisis and now it’s a pandemic,” said Felix Sirls, a guest speaker and public health expert at October 25th’s Opioid Crisis and the United States talk. “It was a crisis and we didn’t deal with it because it wasn’t in our community.

“As long as it stayed within certain communities, sold there, and people were imprisoned  periodically, we made it look good—that we were dealing with it.” Sirls said. “It’s been romanticized as a beautiful thing in films with different artists, even though they were overdosing. If you were cool, that’s what you did, and now it’s become something else over the years.”

The talk came only a day before President Donald Trump declared opioid abuse a national public health emergency. According to the Associated Press, the new status “will allow the government to redirect resources in various ways and expand access to medical services in rural areas,” however, no new money will be pledged to the cause.

“I’ve been on both sides so I know both sides,” Sirls continued, “I’m a substance abuse counselor so people can’t (lie) to me—been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

“When I was dealing drugs I dealt cocaine mainly, until I became honest with the fact that I was poisoning my community and I needed to change that,” Sirls sighed. “And that took some time because I was addicted to the power and control—and the protection. I wasn’t arrested because the people that were taking care of me were being paid off and some of them were police.”

Sirls said that people have to look at the whole process—of why and how drugs stay in the community.

“I work at a HIV counseling and a methadone center with my wife Paula,” Sirls began, “people come in for their doses and some of them have been on methadone for fifteen or twenty years and their teeth are gone and their bones are brittle.” Methadone is a narcotic drug used to help treat narcotic drug addiction and is supposed to be taken for a maximum of six weeks. However, according to Sirls, many become addicted to the methadone and continue to receive prescriptions far longer than needed.

“When I became a paramedic and a licensed vocational nurse, a lot of the people I worked with when we got off did dope to deal with the trauma of the experiences they saw that day. People aren’t always trying to commit suicide,” Sirls says, “Sometimes they’re just trying to maintain.

“Looking at the death rates, they’re pretty high, which is one of the reasons why we’re talking about this now. Death rates have been around for a long time,” Sirls says, “but who is dying is really important. They weren’t dying in the middle of Idaho out in the cornfields, but they are now.

“I’ll be in Ohio next week where’s there’s a huge epidemic of people overdosing and they don’t have Narcan.” Narcan, also known as Naxozone, is a medication used to block the effect of opiates and stop overdoses. “Because the law is controlling what happens rather than the people.

“We’re seeing the same thing with opiates that we are with other medications or marijuana. But to criminalize marijuana to put more people in jail, I have an issue with that.” Sirls says for people facing addiction or using marijuana, imprisoning them and releasing them won’t help fix their behavior. He states that alcoholics are given the option to go to rehab instead of prison, and those addicted should be offered the same opportunity instead of being treated the same as murderers.

Sirls also advocates for more needle exchange facilities where they can be exchanged no questions asked to reduce the transmission of diseases like HIV and damage to veins from dull needles.

Sirls was invited by Dr. Mike Whitty, a professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn who teaches a class called Responsible Drug Policy Reform, to come and speak to his students and the public. “I see myself as a policy reform advocate,” Whitty says, “and I see the best option is to assign it (marijuana) to public health remedies and to be treated medically, and not criminally.”

Whitty’s course is offered once a year as an elective in the fall semester only.