WILKES-BARRE — Standing at the podium inside the Burke Auditorium at King’s College, Martin Henehan began to tear up as he looked at his wife, Stacy, who was seated in the audience.
He did warn the audience he would get emotional as he talked about his daughter.
Henehan was one of five speakers during Saturday’s “Breaking the Cycle: Addiction is Not a Crime Tour,” presented by U.S. Senate Libertarian candidate Dale Kerns along with Blueprints Recovery Inc.
Wilkes-Barre was the first stop in a 13-city tour statewide. The day also featured a dozen providers in addiction treatment and recovery from the region.
Kerns’ proposal, “Addiction is Not a Crime,” focuses on the opioid epidemic that’s hitting the nation, including Pennsylvania and Wilkes-Barre. His bill would propose to end the “War on Drugs” in a multi-faceted effort that includes abolishing for-profit prisons in the state, removing lobbyists and the Federal Drug Administration from the problem and using a free market to educate and assist those in need.
“It’s the same Libertarian viewpoint that I’ve had for years, and what it gets down to is we need treatment over incarceration,” Kerns said. “I think we need to get to the root cause rather than just throwing people in cages to solve the problem.”
Admitting that addiction has dealt a personal blow to his own family, Kerns talked about struggles and successes with addiction and how the “War on Drugs” needs to be passed from politicians to licensed medical professionals.
Kerns proposes giving those with addictions a more streamlined access to treatment facilities, where insurance companies don’t determine the length of stay or make addicts wait for beds to become available.
For those not ready or willing to undergo treatment, Kerns suggested “safe injection sites,” where heroin users can go to get a safe, non-lethal dose administered by a medical professional.
“With my bill, it eliminates the drug dealer on the street. It gets rid of the black market,” he said. “So if we completely decriminalize it, there’s no need for this market where you have crime.”
Henehan talked about being the ninth of 10 children and growing up without much money.
By his teens, Henehan grew dependent on drugs and alcohol, starting a downhill cycle of broken promises to his family, jails and attempts to get clean. He explained that his daughter, Sammi, followed in his footsteps by the time she was a teenager, eventually becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Although she had years of sobriety, Martin said with tears in his eyes, Sammi’s addiction would eventually claim her life at the age of 23 in 2016.
“I’m not a criminal. I’ve never committed a crime. I’ve never hurt anyone - when I was sober,” Martin said. “The addiction is not a crime. But I will say this, I had to be held accountable for my behaviors because what I did was commit crimes to support that.”
Henehan and his wife set up the Forever Sammi Foundation, providing assistance to those in financial distress to transition from treatment facilities to sober living homes.
Clinical Supervisor Kayla Kressler, M.A., spoke about statistics revolving around addiction and what steps need to be taken to repair a broken system.
Kressler first asked willing audience members to raise their hands if they fit into a particular category. Almost all hands were raised when she asked if anyone knew of someone in addiction.
She said the average age of her clients is 24 to 25 years old, with the highest overdose rates causing deaths between the ages of 18 and 24.
“The millennial generation is not going to be one that is very receptive to sitting in lecture halls and being told what they need to do to,”she said.
Kressler said that 75 percent of heroin addicts started off by using painkillers. There were enough pills prescribed in 2016 to fill a bottle for every U.S. adult who was over 18, she said.
In order to combat these statistics and overcome addiction, Kressler said that changes need to be made in the accessibility of care, education and more.