At the beginning of March, the White House held an Opioid Summit to discuss the administration’s efforts to combat a growing national addiction crisis—one that claims the lives of 115 Americans every day—a rate of almost five people every hour.
The data available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, paints an alarming picture: Anywhere from 20 percent to 30 percent of people prescribed painkillers abuse them. Nearly 10 percent of patients develop an “opioid use disorder.”
This is not a trend that started “on the streets,” but rather, in our homes.
In fact, the NIDA all but blames a seemingly complicit pharmaceutical industry on its homepage for the onset, starting with prescribing practices more than 20 years ago.
“In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates,” the site notes. “This subsequently led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive… overdose rates began to increase.”
This is not a finger wag at the pharmaceutical companies, or an attempt to shirk individual responsibility; however, in order to understand solutions, we must understand the nature of the problem, and be able to have an honest, de-stigmatized discussion about the state of affairs, what works and perhaps most importantly, what hasn’t.
Based on recently released recidivism statistics, it’s fair to say the California voters’ attempts with Proposition 47 have not significantly impacted drug-related crimes, which was the justification for the ballot measure that lessened the penalties for most drug offenses.
However, there is a danger in overcorrecting, or not addressing the problem where it lies.
In the lead-up to President Trump’s address this week, national media outlets splashed the headlines in response to memos between Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions that discussed federal prosecutors’ need to pursue the death penalty for drug trafficking.
While it’s true that executing drug dealers might cut down the recidivism rate, significantly, for such convictions, it’s also important to remember that such a penalty has been on the books since former President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which expanded the federal death penalty to include it as a certain punishment for trafficking crimes.
Now there are certain areas where the federal government needs to step up its response. The Veterans Administration, for example, can no longer be a willing partner in the overprescribing epidemic for those brave souls who have served our country. And to that end, the VA is now the first hospital system to release opioid-prescribing rates.
Transparency is a critical first step. And the FDA is also looking at the appropriate ways it can address prescribing practices, according to Trump’s recently outlined plan on WhiteHouse.org.
But another thing to keep in mind: Community problems require community solutions.
Our local law enforcement agency has one of the most effective weapons we’ve seen, yet, the Juvenile Intervention Team, or J-Team.
This group of Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station officials spends all of its time tracking overdoses and drug addiction in our community. They seek to make connections to try and intervene with “at-risk” offenders at a young age.
They offer resources and help educate whenever they can.
And, when all else fails, they’re able to use enforcement as a means of discouraging addiction and drug dealing. This is the best way to attack the problem.
The Feds and California need to focus resources at the community level in other areas, where the greatest understanding of the problem is, and therefore the greatest chance for an impact through drug treatment, behavioral health and other such programs.
The belief that we can scare people away from drug use or addiction is an antiquated notion that’s been ineffective for at least 20 years at the federal level.
We need to support local law enforcement in its efforts on all fronts to combat this terrible problem. That’s where the emphasis needs to be in order to make a difference.