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FaithWatch – Heroin and Opioid Addiction: Emerging Threats to Your Community and What You Can Do

FaithWatch is a publication of Strategic Applications International and Servant Forge. The mission of FaithWatch is to provide information and resources to faith communities on critical issues. It is about putting our faith into ACTION and designed to offer quick and easy interventions, supported by resources, strategies and best practices.

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Heroin and Opioid Addiction:

Emerging Threats to Your Community and What You Can Do

The new heroin epidemic kills more people than traffic accidents and gun violence combined, and it is eroding life for Americans in both cities and rural communities. If this issue hasn’t already found its way into your pews, it will unfortunately make an appearance soon. (should read “opioid” not “heroin” because those stats include deaths from opioid overdoses such as fentanyl and oxy) (can say “opioid epidemic- in large part due to heroin abuse” or something like that)

The new heroin epidemic is rooted in America’s preoccupation with prescription-drug use. We have changed prescribing practices, and first-responders are trained to use the overdose-antidote Naloxone, but this epidemic is costing the nation lives and millions of dollars.

What We Know

  • Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illicit drug heroin, as well as prescription pain-relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others.
  • Opioids are chemically related to, and interact with, opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and nervous system to produce pleasurable effects and relieve pain.
  • Addiction is a primary, chronic and relapsing brain disease characterized by the pathological pursuit of reward and/or relief by substance-use and other behaviors.
  • In 2015, there were 20.5 million Americans age 12 or older with a substance-use disorder. Of those, 2 million had a substance-use disorder involving prescription pain-relievers, and 591,000 had a substance-use disorder involving heroin.
  • An estimated 23 percent of individuals who use heroin develop opioid addiction.

National Epidemic Data

  • Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with 52,404 lethal overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain-relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin.
  • Heroin usage in 2010 was four times what it was in 1999, and the substance-use disorder treatment admission rate in 2009 was six times the 1999 rate.
  • From 1999 to 2008, there was a parallel increase in overdose death rates, sales and substance-use disorder treatment admissions related to prescription pain-relievers. The overdose death rate in 2008 was nearly four times the 1999 rate; sales of prescription pain-relievers in 2010 were four times those in 1999; and the substance-use disorder treatment admission rate in 2009 was six times the 1999 rate.
  • In 2012, there were 259 million prescriptions written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills.
  • Four in five new heroin users began by misusing prescription painkillers.
  • In a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid addiction, 94 percent said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain.”

Faith Engagement

The faith community isn’t immune to this crisis. There are people in our pews; teaching our Sunday school classes; and sitting on our church boards who have an addiction to pain medication. It wasn’t intentional, nor was it something anticipated. They had surgery; a hip and/or knee replacement; maybe recovering from a sports accident, and they were given medications to cope with the pain. Most manage short-term use and withdrawal, and most physicians prescribe responsibly. However, we are discovering an increasing number of patients find themselves dependent on these prescription drugs.

Addiction in the United States is a disease fueled by chemicals that are, for the most part, legal. Drugs that most threaten sobriety include alcohol and painkillers that are often prescribed in large quantities but seldom completely used by the patient.

Things you can do now!

  1. Facilitate a workshop or dedicate a teaching service that focuses on the current crisis in opioid addiction and overdoses.
  2. Reach out to community-based substance-abuse organizations that provide a trainer or facilitator for the workshop. Your county or mayor’s office would have a list of providers.
  3. Join existing substance-abuse coalitions or help facilitate the creation of a coalition. Comprehensive strategies are the most effective approaches.
  4. Either the pastor or someone designated in your congregation should assume the lead of acquiring local data to provide a local narrative on substance-abuse in your community.
  5. Affirm with your congregation that TREATMENT WORKS – but treatment and aftercare are better sustained when a person comes into faith and is then supported by a strong faith community. Relapse is less likely when a faith community is involved in the life of the addict.
  6. Incorporate substance-abuse issues into the life of your Church – in prayer, Bible Studies, these for sermons and talks.
  7. Encourage members of your congregation to question doctors when pain medications are prescribed. Could these drugs lead to dependence? How long should I take the pain medication? What are the side effects?
  8. Educate your congregation on the risks of keeping unused pain medication. Check with your pharmacy about how you can return unused pain medication and participate in drug drop-off programs sponsored by the DEA or county health officials. Volunteer your church to be a collection center of unused drugs for the DEA or health department. If you collect these medications, you need to have a plan in place to move them to the appropriate authorities. You do NOT want to keep unused medications in unsecured locations in your church.
  9. Facilitate the creation of talking-circles and support groups – You can organize these with people in recovery and struggling with addiction, or with people who simply care. Promote these groups in your local community. Let people know that your church is a “safe place” for the recovering community. Again, this should be carefully planned and staffed with experienced volunteers or paid professionals.
  10. Know who provides treatment in your county and ask them to give a presentation to your congregation on treatment protocols for prescription-drug addiction or heroin dependence.
  11. Research and develop Celebrate Recovery groups or similar programs in your local congregation.
  12. Be sure your state has a prescription-drug monitoring program. Get involved with your local pharmacy, law-enforcement and county prosecutor to assure you have in place prescription-drug monitoring programs (PDMPs). This is the process to legally monitor and enforce responsible prescription-drug programs by the medical community. If you don’t have these programs, work with your legislature to develop and require the program. Research is clear – states that have strong prescription-drug monitoring programs have fewer issues with addiction to pain medication. (49 states have a PDMP, and Missouri is working on it. The real key is that in most states it is not MANDATORY for doctors to consult it. That’s where we need the advocacy.)
  13. Have people trained in your local congregation to use Naloxone or Narcan. This is a critically important antidote to an overdose. When administered to an overdose victim, it blocks or reverses the effects of opioid medication. Police departments, first-responders and families with addicts can be trained to use the medication, and you should be one of those important responders. (include that in some states this is available over the counter.


  1. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)
  2. Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services.
  3. National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) at National Institutes for Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  4. Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), U.S. Department of Justice has new publications on collaboration between public health and law enforcement.

FaithWatch provides you with simple, incremental and tested strategies to combat issues that threaten the health and safety of your community. Our faith, regardless of tradition, must be lived in the streets and communities where we serve. Collaboration and developing public-private partnerships will be critical to your success. These issues aren’t solved in isolation and are best addressed in collaboration and partnership with your entire community. Demonstrating this leadership will assure you and your congregation have a voice in the welfare and well-being of your community.

For More Information Contact:

James E. Copple

SAI/Servant Forge at

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