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The Changing Face And Treatment Of Drug Addiction

Central Ohio is reeling from a string of overdoses related to a national epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction.

But 30 years ago there was another drug epidemic. In the 1980s and 1990s, crack cocaine plagued the inner city — primarily communities of color. While today's heroin epidemic has been approached as a public health issue, addicts of crack cocaine were criminalized.

On a Wednesday evening, a few dozen people gather for Bible study at a small church on Cleveland avenue. Attendants snack on the free pizza and coffee as Pastor Mitchell Ellison preaches about a familiar subject — addiction.

“I don’t know if ya’ll was hurting as bad as I was hurting when he found me, or as sick as I was, but I was wore out from the world,"says Ellison to his audience.

The name of this church the C.R.A.CK House Ministry--that stands for Christ Resurrects After Crack Kills. 

Seventeen years ago, Ellison started this

church in his father’s garage. After years of struggling with addition, Ellison spent time in jail for robbery and possession of crack cocaine. He says that's when he re-connected with Christianity and managed to recover.

"Because it really brought me back and it gave me a mission and it allowed me to think about other people other than myself so much," Ellison said.

Ellison’s ministry is also a sober home for men who don't have the insurance to afford treatment. Residents are expected to attend services, Bible study and volunteer in the community.

At first Ellison says he worked with men addicted to crack, but over the years he saw more people struggling with addiction to heroine and alcoholism. However it was not until recently that he started hearing about the heroin and opioid epidemic. People talked about it on TV and politicians promised access to medical treatment.

"You know I smile because it's extremely sad," said Ellison. "I've seen that in the poor neighborhoods for years, not just with heroin but crack cocaine and alcoholism, and nobody was really as concerned." 

Unlike the crack cocaine epidemic, which was concentrated in urban areas and disproportionately affected communities of color, today's epidemic with heroin and opioids has been called the crisis with no zip code, affecting communities in cities, rural areas and the suburbs.

Charles Williams has worked as a director at Maryhaven, a non-profit substance abuse clinic in Columbus since the 1990s back when crack cocaine was the drug of choice. He's says today the face of addiction looks different.

"If you walk down the hall here you might mistake a person who is receiving treatment here for one of the staff," Williams said. "Where years ago you could easily make the distinction."

In the 1990s Williams worked primarily with African American and Appalachian men. There was no available medical treatment for crack addition, just the 12 step program. But today, research has lead to new drugs that curb cravings.

"The public health policy and the changing face of opiate addition has caused a change in attitude about addition overall," Williams said.

Today the drug epidemic is being treated from the standpoint of public health said Williams. The medical world now views addition as a disease and a mental health issue.

Williams says today there's more funding to create accessible treatment programs. Take for example Maryhaven--they now has five regional clinics, twice as many beds in their detox center more than double the staff of 20 years ago.

"I would imagine that a person addicted to crack cocaine would look and see what's going on now and would experience some anger," Williams said.

Scott VanDerKarr, a prosecutor throughout the 1980s and 1990s and a judge for 20 years, says drug addiction used to be far more criminalized.

"You know at that time I'm sure there was some treatment, but you know it was mostly a mentality of the criminal justice system that the answer was to lock people up," he said.

Federal and state laws, like mandatory minimum sentencing, sent first-time and low-level drug offenders to prison, sometimes for decades. It wasn't until 2009 that VanDerKarr helped establish the first drug court in Franklin County directing those same drug offenders to treatment.

"The minorities that feel they were left out in the 80s and 90s, feel like it's prejudice bias, but I don't totally disagree with that," VanDerKarr said.

For all our advancements, says VanDerKarr we have not entirely moved past the stigma associated substance abuse.