Tens of thousands of people from all around the country converged to help people recover from drug addiction at the biggest rally of its kind on Sunday, October 4. UNITE to Face Addiction brought these individuals and over 700 partner organizations together for the first time on the National Mall in order to destigmatize drug addiction.
Many advocates stuck around to visit Capitol Hill the next day and lobby congress for healthcare solutions to addiction and pathways back to the workforce for people convicted of addiction-related crimes.
Drug addiction is one of America’s biggest and most hidden health crises. Addiction affects about 22 million Americans with more than 350 lives lost each day to alcohol and other drug problems, according to rally organizers. Twenty-three million more Americans are in recovery.
The rally not only brought a huge crowd to talk about their experience with drug addiction, but the kickoff concert also brought celebrities, politicians, and inspirational speakers to share their personal experience with addiction.
Artists such as Steven Tyler, Joe Walsh, and Sheryl Crow performed. Numerous other public figures—television host Dr. Oz, Congressman Patrick Kennedy and Former Massachusetts Governor William Weld to name a few—spoke about their personal experience with drug and alcohol addiction or that of someone close to them who has been struggling with addiction or they talked about how those struggling can overcome it.
“We must expand treatment to ensure that every American who needs treatment is given access to it because we know that those recovery efforts can work, and we need to raise our voices and say enough is enough! We must end this crisis,” Weld said . “To all those who are struggling with addiction, I’m here to say that help is on the way. No matter how dark that life seems right now, there is hope. The storm clouds will soon separate and sunlight will grace you once again. If we all stand united, we can make it possible that there is a day when children have to look to the history books to find there was ever such an epidemic hitting our country.”
Rally organizers called for more laws and legislation that will get addicts the treatment and resources they need to overcome the disease, instead of sending them to jail without treatment.
“Together we must find solutions to the addiction crisis and put a face on the hope that survivors offer,” Dr. Oz said during the rally.
One of the common themes among speakers was that drug addiction does not discriminate and it can happen to everyone, no matter their social class, race, gender, or any other distinguishing feature. Everyone wanted drug addiction to be recognized as the disease that it is and to be able to receive treatment for it at any time just like you would be able to do for cancer or diabetes. In order to achieve this, many of the political figures that spoke talked about different laws that they introduced or worked on to help get drug addiction treated like any other disease.
President Obama even addressed the crowd via video to discuss what he and Congress are doing to help those who are facing addiction. Before the event was over, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy announced that he will be conducting the country’s first ever report on drug addiction – a huge win for the UNITE To Face Addiction organizers and participants.
On Monday, October 5, Advocacy Day participants and volunteers met with their state representatives to give personal testimonies on addiction and why there should be more legislation on the matter. Requests included getting treatment to—and insurance coverage for—those in need and helping nonviolent drug offenders get out of jail and back to being a functioning part of society.
Patricia Wilder, who has been in recovery/clean for 25 years, came from Secaucus, New Jersey for Advocacy Day. Wilder is very passionate about early prevention and education for children, so they won’t fall into the disease of addiction later in life.
“It’s imperative that we begin to reach as many young people as we can as quickly as we can, so early intervention and prevention is absolutely necessary going into elementary schools, high schools, and colleges,” Wilder said. “You can send your child off to college and they can pick up their first drink, their first drug, their prescription, crystal meth, and get swallowed into the disease of addiction.”
Elisa Hertzan was another advocate from Summit, New Jersey who is a part of The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD). Hertzan recently became an advocate a few months ago after facing five years of her daughter being addicted to heroin, going through re-entry after prison and not receiving treatment while in prison.
“Living with this nightmare for five years has become my motivation to become an advocate,” Hertzan said. “Many advocacy groups like NCADD were encouraged to come here by the UNITE to Face Addiction organization. We were asked to volunteer to meet with our legislators and senators to pass the CARA Act and the REDEEM Act.”
The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) expands prevention and education efforts and promotes treatment and recovery, according to CADCA.org. It was introduced in February, sponsored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and referred to the Committee of the Judiciary.
The Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (REDEEM) Act calls for the sealing or expungement of records relating to Federal nonviolent criminal offenses. It was introduced in March, sponsored by Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA-2).
“Reducing recidivism and keeping kids from a life of crime will improve economic output, save money by driving down incarceration rates, and make our communities safer,” reads the official website of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, in reference to the REDEEM Act.
Psychiatrist Carla Hammond, from Piscataway, New Jersey came to Advocacy Day to support bills that will get people treatment, to address the severe opioid epidemic in New Jersey, and to help addicts get better access to treatment and mental health services. Hammond is board certified in addiction medicine and is a part of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
“We’re really trying to get people better access to suboxone and other treatment like methadone, outpatient treatment programs, and mental health parity: where the mental health providers are getting paid the same level as people providing other medical services,” Hammond said. “If we can get that and the substance abuse facilities as well, then I think it will open up for people to get more treatment.”