Federal drug official calls for an ‘all-in’ approach to save those struggling with substance use disorder

Sep 2, 2022 | UConnectCare

By Mike Pettinella

State and local human services agencies, supported by the federal government, must pool their services to fight the scourge of substance use disorder that resulted in 108,000 overdose deaths last year, according to the general counsel of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“It’s no longer an ‘either or’ proposition, treatment instead of medication. We’re losing 100,000 people, so it’s everything and anything we can think of to get to people before they die,” said Rob Kent of Haymarket, Va., a Syracuse native who served as general counsel at the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports for 13 years prior to his appointment with the Biden administration.

Kent spoke at The Recovery Station on Clinton Street Road as guest of Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, which kicked off its National Recovery Month activities this morning (Friday). About 30 people from UConnectCare and other organizations attended.

As a key figure in the adoption of the 150-page National Drug Control Strategy, Kent said his office has placed a high priority on harm reduction – principles and services that include prevention, testing, treatment and care, along with distribution of overdose reversal supplies such as naloxone kits (NARCAN), fentanyl test strips, sharps disposal and medication disposal kits, and sterile needles and syringes.

Kent said billions of dollars have been appropriated to this initiative.

“We were accused of being very heavy in the strategy of harm reduction by certain folks in Congress, but we have to be — we’ve got to get to people before they die,” Kent said. “We need to get them connected.”

He added that he will use whatever laws are on the books in an effort to save lives.

“I’m completely uninterested in winning people’s hearts and minds. We will force them to do what they need to do because the law helps us. They’ll figure out, by the way, down the road, that it was the right thing to do on a human level,” he said. “They might not be there at the beginning … but they’ll figure it out when they’re doing it.”

Kent said that he kept the goal of reducing drug overdose deaths at the forefront of his mind as he wrote the criminal justice section of the national strategy.

“I will say that I’m proud of the document; we believe it is a good blueprint,” he said. “We’re going to go around the country trying to tell the folks what we think needs to be done to stop the number of people who are dying from drug overdose.”

He emphasized that law enforcement needs to stop arresting people for drug use or drug possession.

“It just doesn’t work and it has not worked,” he said. “It overwhelms the criminal justice system with folks they’re really not equipped to deal with. We want people to be deflected, diverted. And we’ve written model laws for states. And I’m going to preach that everywhere I go. We ought to be offering help and services to those folks, whatever that might mean.”

Kent acknowledged that people with addictions will commit crimes, and those people may have been receiving counseling and medication-assisted-treatment in the community.

“We can’t end that when they end up in a state and local jail. We have to continue that,” he said, noting that jails in Niagara, Monroe, Erie and other New York State counties are offering medications for opioid use disorder. “We need a plan and connections, before they reenter society … and we’re working on that across the nation.”

One of those connections locally is UConnectCare’s Reentry Program, which provides case management, peer recovery support and housing to individuals returning to the community after incarceration.

He said another priority is to “massively increase access to Naloxone.”

“Personally, I believe everybody ought to carry naloxone. And I say that everywhere I go, and some folks will say, ‘No, I don’t need to carry that because I’m not around those kinds of people.’ And I politely say, ‘Well, you are.’”

Calling addiction “a human addiction,” Kent said it’s a matter of caring for others and showing love for those in need.

“I don’t like to throw numbers around because those are people (who have died),” he said. “Yesterday I spoke in Rochester, and a woman came up to me and gave me the mass card for her daughter. She was 27 years old and died in April. One time. It only takes once now.”

Kent was referring to the fentanyl epidemic that is being fueled by the cartels south of the border.

“Not only do I know what’s happening on the demand side — the treatment side, prevention, recovery and harm reduction, but I hear about what’s coming in,” he said. “And it’s scary. The cartels are now pressing fentanyl into fake pills, fake oxycontin, Adderall, Xanax, you name it. And most people don’t even know it.”

He said folks will come in and say they’re using meth or using cocaine, “and when you test the drugs, it’s all fentanyl. That’s what’s going on.”

Kent credited the professionals at UConnectCare, mental health and other agencies who have invested their lives into seeing others recover and succeed.

“If you don’t think that the staff in a program is pained when one of their folks who left dies, then you don’t understand the programs,” he shared. “I’ve been to too many conferences where staff came up to me and talked to me about the trauma they were experiencing because people left treatment. Before, when people would leave (treatment), they were able to come back. They might not now.”