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Communities need to unite in the battle against opioid addiction and prioritize health over law enforcement to reduce drug overdose deaths, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said Thursday in Flint.

“Treating addiction just by locking people up has been a spectacular failure,” Calley told hundreds of professionals from government, law enforcement, the courts and addiction services at the “Building a Bridge” conference at Flint’s First Presbyterian Church.

The event, hosted by Meridian Health Services, was held to foster collaboration between entities involved in addressing the crisis, from government agencies to nonprofits and the recovery community.

Drug overdose deaths increased 18 percent in Michigan from 2015 to 2016, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. There were 2,335 drug-related deaths statewide in 2016, compared with 1,981 in 2015, and most were related to opioids.

Calley said society needs a “new mindset” about addiction, which is often regarded as a moral failing rather than a health problem. He noted that many people become addicted to pills that were prescribed by their doctor, and said doctors as well as patients need to be better educated on the risks.

People suffering from opioid addiction should be embraced by their communities, rather than stigmatized, he added.

“We know for sure that when it comes to powerful narcotics like this its not about will power,” Calley said. “We need to be about softening hearts to some of the things we’ve been hardened about in the past.

“There is no person who is not worth the effort. There are no throw-away people.”

President Donald Trump during his campaign said he would end the opioid epidemic by building a border wall to keep heroin from entering the United States from Mexico, and by boosting funding for treatment programs. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said the country needs to invest in law enforcement to battle the crises.

Asked Thursday if he agrees with the Trump administration’s approach, Calley noted that U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has made tackling addiction one of the department’s top three public health priorities. Trump last week declared the epidemic a national emergency, agreeing to one of the top recommendations of a presidential commission he appointed to studying the issue.

Meridian Health Services CEO Rick Paige said the insurer hosted the conference because addiction is at crisis levels throughout the state. “It’s an issue that impacts every one of us,” he added.

“We wanted to get everyone together — policy, legal, law enforcement, medical and treatment providers — to educate and collaborate on the disease of addiction, and to discover ways of building bridges in serving our most vulnerable citizens and enhance Michigan’s recovery-oriented system of care to address addiction holistically, and long term,” Paige said.

Lisa Horne, director of community ministry at First Presbyterian Church, said “everybody working together on one common goal can improve success.”

“To have faith-based groups involved is a perfect fit,” Horne said. “To have policy leaders, political leaders, law enforcement, medical and social workers, and people in the recovery community all under one roof — there’s power in that.”

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

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