As a person in long-term recovery from using opioids for more than three decades, including 16 years as a Medication Assisted Treatment client, I have been watching with great interest the progress of The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) of 2015 through the legislature. According to Faces and Voices of Recovery, “this is the most expansive federal, bipartisan legislation to date for addiction support services, designating between $40 million and $80 million toward advancing treatment and recovery support services in state and local communities across the country, which will help save the lives of countless people.”
While I’m an outspoken supporter of CARA, two critically important areas resonate loudly with me as a person who knows firsthand the challenges of both living with and treating a severe opioid addiction.
My first area of interest is the proposed expansion of education about and access to Naloxone, the drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
At the height of my heroin addiction, I overdosed three times. In the first two overdoses, friends who were nearby were able to beat, batter, shake, ice, and yank me back from the edge of death—not the best way to treat an opioid overdose but I’m not complaining.
The third overdose was different. I vividly recall awaking in the back of an ambulance and seeing two paramedics working on me. One was using a bag-valve mask and literally breathing for me. The second was injecting Naloxone into an IV they started while I was unconscious. As I came to and pushed the mask from my face, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in one of the glass cases in the ambulance. It was one of the most shocking sights I have ever seen. I realized that the deep blue color of my skin meant I had been very close to death. Naloxone saved my life that day in the ambulance, and to say I am grateful is an understatement. Naloxone can and should be widely available in every community in our nation.
The second area of CARA that is deeply important to me is the proposed establishment of a National Taskforce on Recovery and Collateral Consequences. Its mission is to identify collateral consequences faced by those with drug convictions and recommend ways to reduce and eliminate them.
As an individual with a felony drug conviction who spent time in state prison, I’ve often said that prison and parole were the “easiest” parts of the experience. It’s not the penitentiary or parole that wreaks the most havoc in the lives of those who return to our communities. It’s the baggage of collateral consequences—civil sanctions incurred by criminal convictions—that insidiously deny us the ability to fully engage in our communities through meaningful work.
Here’s why reducing these collateral consequences are so critical; most of us who leave the criminal justice system after serving time want nothing more than to pick up the pieces of our shattered lives, take care of ourselves and any family we might still have, and return to our communities with the intent of living our lives honorably and righteously. Unfortunately, we are shut out from most employment opportunities, banned from many types of housing, lose our right to vote, and are stigmatized for the rest of our lives. Despite research showing that employment reduces recidivism rates, the American Bar Association’s National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction study has found more than 27,000 state and federal laws and regulations exist to limit job choices for formerly convicted persons. Some of you may be thinking that this is the price you pay for breaking the law. However, when you take away a person’s ability to earn a living and care for themselves and their families, you shove that person’s back against a vicious wall. The lawfulness we depend upon in our society disappears when a person falls into “survival” mode, and then has no legal means of ensuring survival. Additionally, as a taxpayer, you ultimately end up paying for us again when we return to prison for re-offending, or when we burglarize your house in order to get what we need to survive another day. Reducing the impact of collateral consequences provides those of us who want to do the right thing the ability to actually do the right thing, and I’m living proof of this.
In my own case, I’ve been able to succeed in spite of these collateral consequences for two reasons. First, I’ve always believed that education was the great equalizer and, having lived in poverty for much of my life, I recognized it as a viable path out of poverty. Although I never attended high school, I obtained a GED when I turned 18 years and dedicated myself to being a lifelong learner. That commitment ultimately allowed me to obtain a master’s degree from a California State University after I was convicted of a crime. For many with convictions, this route is now closed. Second, as I progressed through my own recovery, various people were instrumental in providing me opportunities to explore potential options for employment that helped me turn my greatest liabilities into my greatest assets. Part of this was blind luck. However, I suspect it was also because I was strongly committed to my recovery, had enough education to pique the interest of potential employers in spite of my liabilities, and was transparent, honest and upfront with them about my criminal conviction. While I currently hold a leadership position within my organization, many doors to employment remain closed and locked, no matter how successful I become. For a vast number of people, the path to success is so filled with barriers and challenges that it appears hopeless to try. I am living proof that success is possible, but in the current climate, recovery is a complex and challenging road to traverse.
For these reasons and so many more, CARA is a win-win for everyone and one of the most important pieces of legislation that has been proposed in a very long time. Please take a moment to review it and voice your support for its passage.
More about CARA and how to help
Here is where the bill stands:
In the Senate, CARA (S. 524) has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Currently, 13 Senators have signed on as co-sponsors of S. 524 as of May 20th. Without support from additional members of the Judiciary Committee, the bill will not advance.
In the House, CARA (H.R. 953) has been referred to three Committees or Subcommittees. They include: The House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations; the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Health; and the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Currently, 9 Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of H. 953.
Here is how you can reach out:
Your senator or representative might sit on one of the above committees. To find out if they do, click here.
You can find your senator or representative's contact information here.
Young People in Recovery has a suggested script from April’s National Call Day that you might consider using.