Addiction a sickness, official says
BY LAURA KELLAMS
Posted on Thursday, November 29, 2007
BENTONVILLE — The state’s drug director asserted Wednesday that addiction isn’t a moral issue but a physical illness, sparking a mini-debate with a lawmaker who said as a pastor he must disagree.
Fran Flener, who took the position May 1, told lawmakers that society should view addiction as a chronic disease that people relapse from, not a sign of moral weakness.
“Sometimes we think that those people that stay hooked on drugs just do that because they choose to,” she said. “I think these people who deal with treatment every day will tell you that’s not true. That’s not true at all.” Flener spoke at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committees, meeting at the Bentonville campus of the drug treatment program Decision Point Inc.
The drug director’s comments riled state Rep. Roy Ragland, R-Marshall, who’s been a pastor for 26 years.
“It’s a decision you make,” Ragland said of doing drugs. “Have we as a state decided meth [methamphetamine ] use is not morally wrong ?” Flener said there’s a difference between starting to use drugs and being an addict. Many people use drugs most of their lives — alcohol for example — and never become addicted, she said. There’s a growing pool of evidence that shows there’s a biological component, she said.
Ragland pointed to No. 5 on the “12 Steps” program hanging on the wall to his right. It reads: “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Ragland told Larry Counts, chief executive officer of Decision Point, that if that’s part of the treatment program’s success, “that indicates to me that it is a moral wrong.” House Committee Chairman Eddie Cooper, D-Melbourne, later pointed out a lifelong friend of his in the audience, Donnie Vest of Melbourne. Vest, an alcoholic, checked in to Decision Point two weeks ago.
“He’s the most moral person I know,” Cooper said.
Vest said his addiction is “a mental problem, a sickness as physical as cancer.” He said he’s learning the tools to treat it.
“It’s like a fog coming off of the lake. That is definitely not a moral problem,” Vest said.
Flener serves as chairman of the state’s Drug Abuse Coordinating Council and said her job is to try to coordinate drug policy for the state and to ensure that grant funds are properly spent by drug task forces.
She said her office continues to work on trying again to get four counties — Benton, Washington, Jefferson and Pulaski — designated as High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. State officials have campaigned for the designation for years, which would make Arkansas eligible for more federal money to fight the spread of illegal drugs, with money for overtime pay for police, for example.
The request has been denied three times by federal officials, but she said she’s hoping to hear maybe as early as January whether the fourth try will be successful.