TASC Founder Receives Justice Leadership Award, Calls for Public Health Approach to Addiction

 At TASC’s December 1 annual luncheon, TASC founder Melody M. Heaps accepted the agency’s 2010 Justice Leadership Award.  Attendees were moved by Ms. Heaps’ speech, of which excerpts are offered below.  Photos and quotes from other luncheon speakers will be posted soon on this blog.

MELODY HEAPS:  

For over thirty years I have had the privilege of working for TASC, an agency whose mission and culture is the restoration of hope to thousands of shattered lives, lives broken by a disease which we have come to understand, through definitive scientific research, as a disease of the brain.

As a society we treat this disease with a combination of fascination, sensationalism and shame. For no other health or medical condition do we attribute such derisive emotions. We watch generations—our sons, our daughters—experience the trauma of broken families. We pretend this is a condition of the inner city, the poor—“those other people” –even as our children leave the suburbs to travel to the drug markets to buy heroin or steal prescription painkillers from our medicine cabinets.

Worst of all, we allow our fellow citizens to pay the steepest price for this disease. We incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country in western civilization, mostly because of the effects of drug use and abuse. And we do so disproportionately so that our minority citizens bear the greatest burden. Even though the rate of illicit drug use is proportionate to all racial populations, one in six African American men was incarcerated in 2001. If the trend continues as it has, one in three African American males can expect to spend some time in prison during his life. This largely because of crimes related to drugs, unavailable treatment for persons without insurance, insufficient legal representation or drug laws which discriminate between cocaine and crack cocaine: one being a product marketed to more affluent communities, the other marketed to the inner cities. In Illinois, the proportion of African Americans arrested for drug offenses increased over a 10-year span from 46 to 82 percent while the proportion of whites decreased steadily from 41 to 11 percent.

This country and those of us in this room must come to understand that drug and alcohol addiction are a public health problem—a public health epidemic—which needs to be confronted, much the same as we have confronted other epidemics or public health dangers such as smoking.

What I love about this agency and why I am so glad that those of you here today have chosen to support TASC is that while it is a great joy to witness the restoration of lives as we have seen in the video, it is also our moral imperative to change the systems, the public policies which have created the conditions in which the disease of addiction thrives, producing devastating social and economic consequences. TASC is committed to a scientifically based public health solution and TASC works tirelessly to create treatment opportunities in lieu of incarceration for individuals entering the justice system.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the remarkable journey of the TASC board of directors and the executive team. This organization, its board and executive team, have not looked back but are moving aggressively to meet new challenges at this critical time in our state and national history. I am particularly amazed at the energy of TASC’s president, Pamela Rodriguez. Under the wise direction of the board of directors, she, along with our executive vice president, Peter Palanca, CFO Roy Fesmire and our vice presidents George Williams and Carolyn Ross, are taking the organization in directions which are faithful to its mission while cognizant of the challenges of a national recession, emergence of national healthcare and a new political landscape.

Again I want to thank you for this honor, for the privilege of service and for the presence of so many who walk with me on the journey to create a more just society.”

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