Map of the United States with Alabama highlighted


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When you examine Alabama’s drug problem and what the largest threat is, it depends on what you’re most afraid of. There are a number of issues in the state that contribute to the disease of addiction, and to examine the current state of affairs for the Yellowhammer State, we had to examine every angle from which the state is being attacked.


The organization most involved and focused on the state’s drug problem is the Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH), established in 1965.


“A cabinet level state government agency, ADMH has the authority to act in any prudent way to provide mental health and intellectual disability services for the people of Alabama,” says Director of Substance Abuse Treatment and Development Sarah Harkless. “Act 881 defines ‘mental health services’ as the diagnosis of, treatment of, rehabilitation for, follow-up care of, prevention of and research into the causes of all forms of mental or emotional illness, including but not limited to alcoholism, drug addiction or epilepsy in combination with mental illness or intellectual disability.”


ADMH regulates and funds the state’s public substance abuse prevention and treatment service delivery system. To answer the question “what is Alabama’s biggest drug problem right now?”, it depends on your definition of “biggest”, according to Harkless. In terms of adverse health consequences and the number of Alabamians impacted, tobacco use is their biggest drug problem.


“In terms of drug overdoses and related deaths, heroin and prescription drug use is currently at epidemic levels in the state,” says Harkless. “And then there is alcohol, which has consistently imposed a huge burden on the state’s health, economy and criminal justice system.”


Three cities in St. Clair County (Moody, Pell City and Riverside) just last week voted to allow Sunday alcohol sales.


Heroin addiction has not surpassed alcoholism in Alabama in terms of treatment program admissions. Alcohol admissions currently account for 20% of Alabama’s public treatment program admissions, the largest percentage of all drugs. However, current treatment admissions for heroin addiction have increased 42% over last year’s admissions.


“We’ve established community coalitions,” says Harkless. “Increased law enforcement activities relative to reducing the supply and availability of heroin.”


The ADMH has also increased statewide prevention and education activities relative to heroin and prescription drug misuse, and made an effort to increase access to medication assisted treatment. HB 208 was passed during the 2015 Alabama Legislative Session, which authorizes a physician or dentist to prescribe Naloxone to an individual at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose, or to an individual who is in a position to assist another individual at risk of experiencing an opiate related overdose.


Recently in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the police department said they will no longer arrest people for drug possession but take them straight into treatment. They want to end the stigma associated with drug addiction, and Vertava Health just recently partnered with them.


“I think this strategy has good potential, but will require careful planning to accomplish what I perceive as its goal of not arresting people who have substance use disorders,” says Harkless. “For example, the community must have adequate treatment resources to accommodate the referrals from law enforcement officials.”


In addition, Harkless says not everyone who is possession of drugs will need treatment. For example, some of these individuals will be drug dealers. How would such situations be handled in Alabama? Currently, no law enforcement agencies in the state are discussing the adoption of this policy that we are aware of. Vertava Health is currently drawing plans to hopefully present to them and enact a similar sister policy for the state.


“Drug overdoses in Alabama have significantly increased during the past few years,” says Harkless. “In Jefferson County, the state’s largest county, heroin deaths increased nearly 140% in 2014 above the 2013 rate.”


Alabama currently does not have needle exchange programs, though many states have enacted them in the wake of several HIV and Hepatitis C outbreaks. The state does, however, have a Good Samaritan Law that provides immunity to those wanting to report an overdose if they are under the influence of drugs or have drugs on them.


“More widespread Fentanyl use is occurring,” says Harkless.


According to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office, 22 people died from an overdose of Fentanyl or a combination of Fentanyl and heroin in the first 3 months of 2015. A multi-million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health was recently awarded to the Southern Research Institute in Alabama to develop drugs that have the same painkilling capacity as prescription opiates, without the risk for addiction.


The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), has slashed federal funds to the state’s local drug enforcement units, thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice repeatedly cutting the funds awarded to the state.


One thing is painfully clear. The fight against Alabama’s addiction is going to take a joint effort between government agencies, law enforcement, and the community.


If you or someone you know is battling the disease of addiction, you can call our 24/7 hotline at 1.888.614.2251, or log onto Help us bury the stigma associated with addiction, and give our communities the gift of recovery.


Call Vertava Health now!