The Heroin Epidemic: How Local Communities are Fighting Back


By Lindsay Poss

Warning: this is a more personal column than most.

About two months ago on a bored scroll through Facebook, I read the news that a former member of my class in high school had suddenly died of a heroin overdose. It was truly shocking. My little town boasts the number one public school in the state of Maryland, and is only forty minutes outside of Washington, D.C. It’s secluded, but the median income is almost double the national average and the high school graduation rate is 100%. Nearly all of my peers went on to college, and in the years following my graduation the college attendance rate has only improved. How could the heroin epidemic reach my town? Then I learned of four more deaths – people who had attended my high school and graduated around the same time as me. To put it bluntly, I was floored.

This seems like an unfortunate truth for most of America; people believe that the opioid crisis will never reach their community, as long as the community is thriving and there are close ties through community organizations. The opioid crisis is an overlooked monster; affluent communities try to hide what is happening while at-risk communities are wreaked by havoc and devastation while blaming community members. The crisis happened so quickly that rather than face it, people have pushed it away – which I am guilty of. It remains a confusing topic, with one tough question to answer: how did we get here?

The opioid crisis didn’t happen overnight, but there was a clear beginning. It was not dark figures in back alleys slinging dope for money; it was large pharmaceutical companies that preyed on an election system influenced by money. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the agency at the center of preventing crises like this one, was blocked by Congressional members who accept large campaign donations from pharmaceutical companies in exchange for protection from financially damaging legislation. Opioid manufacturers saw an opportunity for extreme revenue generation, and did little to consider the consequences to communities around the country. Legislation has done next to nothing to hold these companies responsible, and the executive branch is busy blaming “bad hombres” and pushing to “build the wall.” This entire system benefits the companies and doctors who over-prescribe these opioids, which has led to the quick downturn of communities affected by this crisis.

There is a thread of hope. The Netflix documentary Heroin(e) documents the attempts of three women supporting the growth of their community by addressing the opioid crisis in the “Heroin Capital of America,” Huntington, West Virginia. Rather than harsh restrictions and more laws, these women provide humane outlets to give addicts a shot at sobriety. Local communities across the country are turning to methods of support and education rather than punishment. Several online support programs have developed toolkits to aid community members in educating residents about safe disposal, smart prescription use, and treatment options for addicts. In my own community, several people have raised money for addiction support networks through charity walks and other events centered on treating the crisis.

These small steps provide necessary community-level support, but larger changes are needed at the federal level. The problem is now incredibly widespread and will require more than a “band-aid to stop the bleeding” piece of legislation. If Congress truly wants to serve the American people, campaign money from drug companies should not be the foremost reason preventing the passing of legislation that addresses these issues. Given Congress’s duty to act as civil service, we can only hope that helping desolate communities and residents wracked with addiction will become a priority very soon.

While I was clearly shocked that the opioid epidemic had reached my community, the response and love shown within has made me realize I am still luckier than most to grow up where I did. For communities facing this tragedy, it is important (but difficult) to unite under the cause of improving everyone’s lives and opportunities. Drug education is an important component of this change, and for now it is up to local leaders to implement programs and have difficult conversations with residents about safety and prevention. Acting like the problem doesn’t exist or placing blame on people does little to improve outcomes for residents or communities. Building a better future for everyone should be the unifying factor for addressing the opioid crisis.

Lindsay Poss is a second-year student in the Public Policy and Management (PPM) program at Heinz. Before graduate school, she completed a Bachelors of Science in Decisions Science also at Carnegie Mellon University. She represented CMU as part of the Women’s Basketball team, and has a continuing passion for basketball which she pursues as the head coach of the Men’s Club Basketball team at CMU. After graduate school, Lindsay hopes to pursue a career in International Relations, specifically working in U.S.-Russian diplomacy.