Earlier this month, one Juniata County courtroom was witness to a tragic scenario that has become all too common in our communities.
On one side, a family of a young man who lost his battle with addiction. On the other side, a young man named Kenneth Varnes, standing trial for his own life while fighting to survive the same terrible disease.
At issue was the accusation that Varnes had provided a fatal dose that ended the life of his friend.
Enough has been said about the facts of that court case, and none of the tragedy visited there will be rehashed here. However, what was seen in that courtroom has become a mirror into the terrible battle against opioid addiction being fought in our communities. How we define that struggle may very well determine if we will ever have a chance of gaining a foothold in the fight against opioid addiction.
Scenes such as these highlight a reality that many of us are uncomfortable confronting in the struggle against opioid abuse. These two families represent so many who have been destroyed by this disease.
The addiction crisis happening in our communities and homes is not a story best told as a battle of villains and heroes. It is not a story of bad guys versus good guys. It is not a story of “junkies” versus the rest of us. It is a story of everyday people, members of our community, who struggle daily against the worst of odds. It is a story of people who, despite their real and frequent interaction with our criminal justice system, are still our sons, our daughters, our siblings, our neighbors and our loved ones.
This in no way means that those who have made a business out of selling poison should not be held accountable. Nor does it imply that those who battle addiction should not be held to obey the law.
However, this epidemic cannot be solved if it is viewed as a criminal justice problem. It is not a problem that will ever be solved by building more prisons, getting “tougher,” or seeking the satisfaction of vengeance against those who suffer from disease. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.
To battle this disease, we must come together, recognize that our children are sick, and seek solutions to this public health crisis that work toward making our children better. We must recognize that those sick with addiction, no matter how many times they try and fail to get better, are not worthless. They are not “junkies,” and they are not hopeless.
The resources that we put into treatment, health-based solutions, and making our sick kids better will pay dividends for a generation. Resources put into punishing and incarcerating do not yield those returns.
It is my hope that, as this fire rages on, everyone on the front line of this fight will come to recognize that we have one and only one primary goal: to stop a health crisis before it consumes us.
This fight is an existential one, and we cannot afford to lose a generation to the disease of opioid addiction. It is my hope that we, as a society, will rethink, revise and retool our battle strategy to make sure that the focus is always where it belongs: solutions that will make our children well again.