Don’t forget to listen to the fringe when addressing the opiate epidemic

Somewhere out there are a couple beat-up copies of the book “Paradigms: The Business of Seeing the Future” that once belonged to me. I had one and let someone borrow it, but then I needed it, so I bought another. I got the original back, then loaned them both out. (If anyone reading this post is one of the people to whom I loaned them, please let me know. I’m especially looking for the one I highlighted with one of the boys’ green Crayola marker.)

The point of that little burst of “too much information” is to say I’ve been thinking a great deal about that book lately, but I’m too cheap and too broke to go out and buy yet a third copy. In the book, the author, Joel Barker, explains paradigm theory through a business lens, but the applications are limitless. Paradigms are the models, solutions, processes we use to solve problems, address issues and conduct business.

As I’ve said to more than one person as I’ve handed them the book to read, paradigms are the patterns we use to lead our lives, and not all of our paradigms are healthy and/or useful as time passes. The trick is to know when it’s time to change or adjust the pattern, whether in business, our personal lives or on a societal level. Our current addiction epidemic is a great working example.

Historically drug addiction has been seen as anything from a moral failing to a criminal issue, and until recently our systems have addressed substance use disorders as such. Now citizens and elected officials alike are reaching consensus on the idea that substance abuse disorders need to be addressed as medical and mental health issues. That’s a huge paradigm shift in the making.

Implementing such a huge shift is the policy equivalent of reseting a gear train. That one larger paradigm shift needs to align with smaller moving paradigm shifts wherever addiction is having an impact. Some of the obvious smaller shifts can be found in law enforcement programs like Project HOPE in Scarborough and in corrections programs like the Criminogenic Addiction Recovery Academy at Kennebec County Corrections Facility.

But not all the possible tools and solutions will come from already established institutions like law enforcement, corrections, and traditional medical and mental health providers. Barker emphasizes the importance of looking to “the fringe” for possible solutions. He recounts some of the great thinkers in history whose theories and ideas were outside the norms of their time. I’m pretty sure he referred to Einstein and Galileo, but even if he didn’t, they’re both perfect examples of innovators who stepped outside the commonly held beliefs of their time.

In doing so, they advanced humanity.

Barker acknowledges that not all the ideas that bubble up from the fringe are going to be worthy of further exploration, but he asserts that good leaders understand that some of them are. Good leaders have to be willing to listen to the fringe for ideas that might lead the way to a paradigm shift. Good leaders know to keep an open mind no matter how odd the message or the messenger may seem at first glance, especially when undertaking a tremendous paradigm shift.

Which brings me to the actual reason for this long introduction to my actual point: Who is the fringe when it comes to combating addiction in Maine? After listening to legislative testimony about a comprehensive bill at the beginning of this session, I decided that the folks testifying that they would like to have addiction added to the list of conditions that can be legally treated with medicinal marijuana are about as fringe as you can get with this issue.

A home pot grower shows some of his marijuana from a previous harvest inside his apartment in Washington. (Astrid Riecken | The Washington Post)

A home pot grower shows some of his marijuana from a previous harvest inside his apartment in Washington. (Astrid Riecken | The Washington Post)

So I’ve been spending time getting to know some of them and interviewed a handful of caregivers and people in recovery this morning. It was a powerful experience that I will be writing about in the coming days. Federal and state restrictions have limited the extent to which proponents can formally study efficacy here in the United States, so much of the information is anecdotal. Nonetheless, one of the gentleman I met this morning showed me a picture of two pantry shelves filled with 47 different prescriptons bearing his name, including medications to treat pain.

Then he proudly announced he was down to one script — and medicinal marijuana — and he had his life back. He’s hoping to get off pharmaceuticals entirely.

That’s a pretty powerful anecdote from the fringe. I hope our leaders are going to be willing to listen. Attorney General Janet Mills’ office just announced that 272 people died from drug overdoses in Maine in 2015. In her press release, she said, “We must use every effort to intervene in these people’s lives before it is too late.”

The folks I interviewed this morning want to be a part of those efforts, and, at the absolute least, our policy makers should be open to hearing what they have to say.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.