By Chris Adams

Would we ever tell somebody who has had a heart attack that they need to wait three weeks for treatment?

That’s one of the questions that Dr. Leana Wen, health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, asks as she tries to convince public health officials – and the public in general – to rethink their attitudes about addiction.

“We know that treating addiction as a crime won’t work,” she said.

In a session with journalists at a National Press Foundation program, Wen described the efforts she has made in Baltimore to get a handle on that city’s drug problem.

While much of the media attention on opioid addiction has focused on what’s happening in the small towns and rural areas of the nation’s Rust Belt, Wen reminded journalists that the problem has existed in big cities for decades.

Wen saw much of the carnage first-hand: As an emergency room physician, she treated hundreds of patients who had overdosed on opioids. She talked about one patient: a 24-year-old mother of two who came into the emergency room nearly every week requesting addiction treatment. She would be told there was nothing available that day, but she could have an appointment in three weeks.

One day, her family found her unresponsive and not breathing; by the time she arrived in the ER, she was dead.

Baltimore’s approach is to equip both drug users and those around them in how to prevent overdoses. One program teaches drug users how to prevent and treat overdoses.

Wen has also authorized every citizen in Baltimore to get a prescription for naloxone, giving those closest to drug users the ability to intervene in the event of an overdose.

Wen’s “three pillars” of her opioid strategy are: prevent deaths from overdoses, increase access to quality and effective on-demand treatment, and increase addiction education and awareness to reduce the stigma that comes with addiction.

She also had suggestions of story lines for journalists: the language of addiction, what treatments work, government funding for prevention and treatment, what insurance and/or Medicaid pays for, and the racial and demographic aspects of opioids.