Our opinion: The stigma of addiction isn't helping

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The past few weeks in southern Vermont have seen a sudden outbreak of drug-related law enforcement headlines.

In Brattleboro, police shut down suspected "drug houses" and made multiple arrests. In Bennington, additional charges have been brought against a man already accused of providing heroin to a woman who overdosed and died. And in Manchester and Winhall, recent arrests and searches turned up significant quantities of heroin and other drugs. Law enforcement is not where the fight against the opiate epidemic stops and starts, but it plays a critical role. And lately, police must feel like they're stuck in the film "Groundhog Day:" Every time a dealer is identified, investigated, arrested and prosecuted, another one sets up shop, filling the niche in the supply and demand equation.

It's a thankless job, so we're taking this opportunity to thank our police and first responders for their efforts and diligence.

But in the midst of all this police activity, which is just one part of a bigger effort that involves all of us, we have to guard against allowing the negative stigma of addiction to creep back into our thinking about this problem. As our recent story about Windham County's overdose death rate shows, we've still got a long way to go, and a lot of work to do.

It's easy to adopt a simplistic, binary understanding of the legal system, in which there are good people who follow the law, and bad people who break the law and deserve to be punished. But that's an elementary school understanding of the criminal justice system, one that misconstrues a far more complicated reality. "Good" people can have moments of bad judgement. And "bad" people who have made a series of poor decisions can turn their lives around. To be clear, we don't want drug dealers feeding people poison and exploiting addiction, and there needs to be a reasonable cost for such behavior to serve as a deterrent. That goes equally for the pharmaceutical companies that pushed opiate painkillers on doctors and patients and helped create this nightmare. But the stigma of drugs as a criminal enterprise or a moral weakness leads us to adopt an "us and them" mentality, and that's not useful. It leads to denial and shame, which doesn't help anyone. Denial keeps people from dealing with the elephant in the room. Shame leads people to hide their problems rather than reach out for help.

We need people to reach out for help, without fear. And when they do reach out, we need to treat them with dignity and respect.

The human cost of the alternative is dreadfully high, and we've already paid a horrible price in lives lost.

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