Roland Lamb, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, visited Solutions Journalism: Covering Addiction to discuss the state of drug and alcohol addiction in Philadelphia, perspectives on substance use and overdose, as well as the City of Philadelphia’s addiction services. Click here to download Lamb’s presentation.


“This Disease Will Kill You,” Thoughts from Roland Lamb on Substance Use and Abuse

by Maggie Andresen

Roland Lamb, Deputy Commissioner for the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, works with statistics on substance use every day. Numbers that could seem trivial out of context gain meaning when Lamb breaks down their significance, like the bleak fact that out of every dollar spent on addiction related services, $0.97 is delegated to the consequences of substance abuse while only $0.03% is allocated to prevention and treatment programs. Or that $200.00 a day is spent per person in outpatient care. Or that over 900 people died from a drug overdose in Philadelphia county last year.

Lamb’s numbers add up to a sobering reality; in order to solve the plight of addiction, we’re going to have to change the accepted paradigms in both the way addiction is perceived by the public and in the methods of treatment administered by those who ultimately stand to profit from it. Doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and recovery centers must communicate with people in long term recovery to identify what must change in order to reduce the risk for initial exposure to addictive substances and collectively lower the rate of relapse with effective programming.

“Sports and art programs,” Lamb added in answering how to prevent early-onset substance use after acknowledging the failure of the widely-touted D.A.R.E program. “And that’s exactly what’s being cut [from schools].”

Like former class guest Devon Reaves, Lamb acknowledged that heightened public attention and outcry to opioid abuse and death could be attributed to a young, white generation of people struggling with addiction. His response? The disease is indiscriminate, and treatment should mirror that. “Rich or poor, white or Black, young or old, this disease will kill you.”

While recounting changing patterns in the city’s annual report of substance use, Lamb remarked on the climbing rates of women using opioids in Philadelphia, as well as the subsequent raise in female overdose deaths. He also cited consistently low participation rates of women in treatment programs, hypothesizing the reluctance relating to leaving their children for 28 days. “We’re actually seeing a reduction in women’s only programs,” Lamb added somberly.

Lamb also cited the DEA in affirming the heroin sold in Philadelphia is the purest in the country at 65 – 67%, and is the cheapest on the East Coast. He affirmed the large scale use of fentanyl that had been somewhat mitigated since the outbreak of overdose deaths across the country in 2012 has since made a reappearance in Philadelphia, attributing the drug’s resurgence to fentanyl’s extreme potency and even smaller price tag to heroin. The 19134 zip code is particularly high in overdose rates, Lamb said, demonstrating his point with several maps highlighting the Richmond neighborhood as a concentrated area of drug dealing, overdose deaths, and violent crime. Lamb ascribed this trend as going back to 1986, when Latin American drug dealers identified Philadelphia as a launching point for selling first cocaine and then heroin.

“I always say chase people, not drugs,” Lamb said with regard to the cyclical nature drug popularity. “It used to be that cocaine was killing people, and now it’s heroin.”