Op-Ed

Region can be research hub for causes, cures of addiction

The federal Narcotics Farm in Lexington was the center of addiction research in the 1940s and 1950s.
The federal Narcotics Farm in Lexington was the center of addiction research in the 1940s and 1950s. PBS

Decades ago, the world’s research about addiction came from one place — a federal prison/hospital near Lexington, known as the Narcotics Farm.

The Farm was built in 1935. For 40 years, heroin addicts from across America were sent there. As such, it was a perfect place for research on addiction. From the Farm came the first world’s important studies of addiction.

In 1975, the Farm was converted to the prison hospital for all inmates that it is today. Since then, addiction research has remained dispersed, in part because there isn’t a natural center for it to take place.

I believe this region — Southern Ohio, West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky — can replace it as a worldwide center for the study of the causes and treatment of addiction.

You have a constellation of great university medical centers at Ohio State, Cincinnati, Kentucky, Louisville, and West Virginia. At Shawnee State (Portsmouth), Northern Kentucky (Highland Heights), Marshall (Huntington) enrollments are swelling with recovering addicts studying social work and addiction counseling.

They could prove eager workers in these studies. In some areas, Portsmouth is one, you have abundant cheap real estate that could house these studies. You also have thousands upon thousands of addicts — active and recovering — who could be the subjects of these studies.

A corridor of addiction research bisected by the Ohio River.

But who wants to be known as a center of addiction?

Well, think of it another way. Addiction has destroyed people for thousands of years. This region could be a world center for the study of one of humankind’s most persistent torments. Boston is the center of study of cancer and blood — to the great benefit of that area, and the world. Addiction, in all its forms, afflicts far more people than does cancer.

Regional cooperation is key. One state alone, one sub-region alone, one school alone, probably couldn’t achieve the synergies and the political pull needed. It’s time to leverage brainpower of like-minded people and regions. Six senators and a dozen or so congressmen could form an Addiction Research & Solutions Caucus to expand federal research grants. Add to that three governors, several college presidents and many researchers.

That’s an impressive lobby, seems to me.

It would also require state and local government working for this future. And folks at those medical centers would have to get to know each other, cooperate on studies and leverage their research abilities.

I know that’s hard. But haven’t we tried the “solution in isolation” approach? Isn’t that what the whole pain revolution was all about — treating all pain with one kind of pill? Haven’t we seen families across this region fighting addiction alone? Alone, problems seem insoluble.

This region ought to sponsor an annual national conference bringing together specialists in family practice, addiction studies and pain management. Amazingly, despite 20 years of modern medicine holding that primary care docs should prescribe highly addictive drugs to treat pain, there is no U.S. conference, no journal, no social space where these specialties an meet to exchange and test ideas.

When these folks come together in conferences, in journals, over a beer at a Reds game, their combined expertise will find solutions to this epidemic. That’s how innovation happens.

This area as a center for the addiction study would invite not just dollars but educated people to a region that has seen a lot of both depart over recent decades. Yet the benefit goes deeper. A recovering addict is more than a person who no longer does dope. A recovering addict discovers new energy for the possibilities of the future, with gratitude for a second chance.

Harnessing that is crucial to defeating not only this epidemic but also the fatalism and inertia on which dope feeds. The more research funding out there, the more those recovering addicts could be employed in those studies, channeling their newfound energy.

The pharmaceutical industry, then the dope dealers, thought regionally when they figured out how to make this region one of the first in the country to get massively hooked. Now it’s your turn. You can transform the wreckage into a profound virtue for this area and, it’s not too much to say, for the world.

Optimistic? You bet. Why not? The antidote to heroin isn’t naloxone; it’s community. A century ago, a “scene” of industrial tinkerers and inventors formed along the Ohio River. They learned from each other and were aided by government; they competed mightily, innovated and changed the world. You have this in your economic DNA.

Something similar could emerge here again around addiction research, transforming devastation into renewal.

After all, the dope dealers learned to do it. And they’re really not that smart.

Sam Quinones is a California journalist and author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate” Epidemic (Bloomsbury).

If you go: Author Same Quinones will discuss his book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic April 18 at Northern Kentucky University. The conversation begins at 7 p.m. and a panel discussion at 8 p.m. in the Concert Hall. For more information:

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