(COVINGTON, La.) — In union with the theme of “quality education” celebrated during of Founder’s Week, St. Paul’s students filed into the new gym on Sept. 22, 2016, to watch a presentation that educated students on the dangers of opioid addictions.
Students first watched a documentary that interviewed several heroin users, and showed the affects of the addiction. After the film, a panel that included numerous public figures, like the St. Tammany Parish coroner and sheriff, were called upon to speak. Moderating the discussion afterwards was U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, who addressed the school on a very personal level.
“Being a child of this region, having seen the impact that this particular epidemic has on the lives of people in the region, and the violence that it spawns,” Polite said, “it’s just very important for us to engage with as many young people as possible to really have a lasting change in it.”
The reference to the growth of opioid addiction Polite used, “epidemic,” is certainly not an understatement. In fact, according to the American Society of Addition Medicine (ASAM), drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States.
“Growing up (in New Orleans) I certainly saw people die from this addiction, and end up in jail as a result of their drug use,” Polite said. “My half brother was actually killed; I lost my brother to the streets of New Orleans.”
This has not gone unnoticed, and politicians like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan are vehemently advertising legislation to aide in the fight against opioid dependency. Even so, with a GOP majority in congress and a Democratic president, congress has been slow in passing much of anything. And this isn’t just a generalization; congress achieved their first overrule of a presidential veto in eight years on Wednesday, Sept. 28. Polite, however, has faith that the political system will prevail in this instance.
“I am very hopeful for it,” Polite said. “I think for the first time, in some time, you’ve got bipartisan support to address this particular issue.”
The sheer addictive quality of opioids also brings about a whole new scope of horror aside from personal health: crime. An overwhelming majority of heroin users’ addictions derived from prescription pain pills like oxycodone and hydrocodone. The reason users of these pills make the switch to heroin is purely financial. When one’s prescription for these pain pills has expired, that person must look to the black market, or the streets, to obtain more.
In this environment, prescription pill prices can be outrageously high. The alternative, heroin, can be found for a fraction of the cost. Even so, many drug users find themselves scrambling for money. According to Polite, in order to avoid the impending withdrawals, users will often turn to almost anything, most notably robbery, to get hold of quick cash. So logically, as the number of opioid addicts rises, so do drug related crime rates. In effect, police are overwhelmed. Even with authorities arresting hundreds of people for robberies and drug charges, most are likely to resume using after being released from prison. This brings to light what seems to be a conundrum to law enforcement, who end up arresting the same person multiple times for the same, or similar offenses. Consequently, many leaders have aimed to educate, and persuade the youth to distance themselves from addictive drugs. Louisiana, like several other states, has succeeded in setting up a “drug court” which aims to rehabilitate drug users instead of traditionally sentencing them.
“Really in terms of criminal justice reform as a whole, you’ve heard many of the panelists (law enforcement officers) talk about the fact that we can’t simply arrest our way towards a safer community,” Polite said. “That is something I think that every one of our political leaders kind of recognizes now that while we have to enforce the law. We also have to engage and invest in things like treatment and prevention and intervention and re-entry as additional tools.”
Polite has embraced this modern mindset, talking at numerous youthful functions in an attempt to dissuade drug abuse, and listen to young adults’ outlook on the issue.
“I’m always hopeful being around young people,” Polite said, “which is why I like our office to be as engaged as possible. I think a lot of them are nervous sometimes when we’re first observing these types of documentaries; the conversations and statistics we’re throwing around can be challenging. But, ultimately, as you continue to engage and interact with them and ask for their insights, you do see young people open up a lot faster than adults sometimes; they’re ready to offer fresher perspectives.”
To conclude his talk, Polite called upon the St. Paul’s Student Council to capitalize on leading in their community. Subliminally, Polite urged student council members to especially act on one of St. Paul’s five Lasallian Core Principals: Inclusive Community.
“My high school principal, when I was student body president, asked us to change the name of our student council from the c-o-u-n-c-i-l traditional spelling to c-o-u-n-s-e-l,” Polite said. “As student leaders, not for the praise, not for the positions, not for the titles of being in government, but more as individuals who are there to advocate and serve those in the larger community.”