SALT LAKE CITY—The drug addiction recovery and mental health advocates are said to always be the biggest group to rally at the Capitol, and Tuesday was no exception.
The rotunda was filled across the floor and up the back stairs. A massive crowd held up signs bearing messages of hope for drug addicts and championing legislative issues. The atmosphere was emotional and electric as speaker after speaker ended each sentence to roaring cheers. The community applauded for personal stories of recovery told by former drug addicts, for legislative victories announced by lawmakers, and for empowering statements of hope for those currently battling drug addiction.
“I just believe this is a good thing. We need to keep the programs and support going to help keep people out of jail and give them options for recovery,” said Jill Griggs, an attendee at the rally.
The rally was preceded by a remembrance walk around the Capitol building. Hundreds walked together in memory of lives lost to addiction or mental health-related issues.
As people gathered inside the Capitol, there was no denying the passion felt by all. Mary Jo McMillan, Executive Director of Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, proudly told the crowd she was standing 30 years addiction free. She reminded the crowd that those suffering from addiction or mental illnesses are “worth it,” a phrase echoed on their signs.
“We have brain disorders. They are the same as other chronic illnesses and deserve the same healthcare as other chronic illnesses,” she said.
She was followed by many other speakers including Utah Legislators. They spoke on different bills they were working to push through the legislature that address mental health in Utah. Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, pointed to the words “Vox Populi” above the house chamber. “That’s Latin for voice of the people, and we hear your voice today,” he said.
Eliason talked about two of his sponsored bills this legislative session. HB308 would create a Needle Exchange Program where drug addicts can exchange dirty needles for clean ones, curbing the spread of disease. More importantly, they would be exposed to recovery options and medical care if they chose to get help. Eliason’s HB265 would authorize tax credits to bring more psychiatrists to the Utah, helping to prevent suicide.
Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City and Jennifer Plumb, founder of Utah Naloxone, addressed the crowd about the opioid overdose bills making their way successfully through the legislature. The bills would increase availability of Naloxone, a drug that can reverse opiate overdoses.
“We want to save lives, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Spackman Moss said.
Utah lawmakers are moving toward developing a program that would transform treatment of addicts under the law. Rally attendees emphasized their push for recovery, not imprisonment. Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns stood for this idea.
“We will stop putting people behind bars and in jail for addiction problems,” he said.
Roger Tomney, now a member of Shannon J Scholarship, a group that raises money to help pay for individuals to get into treatment programs, told his own story of personal addiction recovery and how it saved his family life.
“Stigma told me I was a menace to society,” he said. “But recovery told me I was an asset to my community.