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Mercy for Addicts

Editor’s Note:  For years, Paul Komarek has been studying, advocating for and building models of restorative justice and community-based addiction/mental health treatment. The data shows that John McKnight was right–that professionalized services are not only too expensive to be sustainable,  but will never solve our social problems because they dis-empower citizens and destroy the very community fabric within which healing occurs.  (See the Starfire Council for a community-based model for dealing with developmental disabilities.) Below, Paul talks about efforts in N.Ky. to address addiction through community volunteers.  Paul can be reached at  


Paul Komarek

Pope Francis has recently declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy If we care to give mercy a try, we can start with our brothers, sisters, and neighbors who are suffering and dying from addiction.  In the last few years we have learned that people who use heroin and other opiates are risky, traumatized, disordered, and distressed. They have pain, addiction, immaturity, and mental illness all mixed together. They are in deep trouble. They need rescue. They need treatment, safety, and support, not lectures, punishment, and scorn. They need mercy.

We can heal the sick, and offer treatment to everyone who needs it. Northern Kentucky treatment agencies receive 40 calls a day from people seeking admission to care. We can say yes to everyone who calls, and if half show up, that’s 20 people every day, 100 every week, 5000 in a year. That is everyone at risk of overdose death in Northern Kentucky, brought to treatment in one year. It is not that costly to fund that surge of treatment.

Most people who use opiates stabilize quickly with medication and day treatment, but they require support to recover long term. We can show these people mercy, and support them as they make progress in their lives. We can house the homeless, feed the hungry, and offer comfort to the afflicted. Treatment groups can team up with churches and volunteers to help people stay in treatment. Ordinary human trouble disrupts treatment. Guest rooms, church dinners, safe recreation, and basic friendship help people overcome loneliness, rejection, transportation issues, and relationship trouble, the top barriers to retention in treatment.

Don’t forget jobs. When people emerge from drug use they tend to be poor and unemployed. We can give alms to the poor by combining jobs with support. This is another way for volunteers and co-workers to pitch in.

A minority of people have great trouble stabilizing, even with treatment. They may be too immature, too traumatized, or just too far out of control. Many of the people in this last group become prisoners for their own safety. Some are in jail, others are in secure facilities. We can show these people mercy too, by offering them treatment and connecting them with community support as soon as they are ready.

Mercy is good public policy. It aligns with effective medical care for addiction. Why are we so stuck in suffering? Perhaps mercy is our greatest challenge.


Paul Komarek is the author of SHARP Stop Heroin and Rescue People.

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