On Saturday afternoon, I watched what I believe was the county coroner’s office removing a body out of a home across the street from me. The gentleman that lived at the residence was someone I never spoke to personally. I had seen police and EMTs at his home several times in recent years and was always curious about what was going on, but never went further than that.
Whether it was drug abuse, mental illness or a combination of the two, or if it perhaps was a completely unrelated issue, it made for a sad afternoon. The night before, I had had a conversation with a close friend regarding his prior drug use (he’s now clean) and how it had drastically changed the outcome of his life after college. Then, reporting on a string of drug arrests at an apartment complex across the street from my childhood home reminded me just how widespread this issue really is. Although drug abuse has never blatantly affected me or the people in my immediate sphere of influence since I’ve come back to Page, it’s easy to forget how insidious and rampant the problem is.
I’ve always been a proponent of the model of drug addiction as an illness and that it should be addressed as such by law enforcement and lawmakers. I think a lot of people who aren’t directly affected by drug abuse, especially opioid/opiate drug abuse, get caught up in the criminality of it. People see street dealers get locked up and call it a victory, but forget the users who don’t peddle the product are spending more than half of their income every week on a substance that is destroying their body and mind from the inside out.
I think for many people, it’s easy to forget the person behind the addiction. The majority of this country’s drug policy stems from archaic laws that view addicts the same way we view criminals, but the two are not mutually exclusive.
I had one gentleman tell me on Facebook he doesn’t believe addicts have an excuse. “Well I was prescribed that stuff when I hurt my back, and I didn’t get addicted,” he said. “They don’t have any self control. They have the same opportunities as everyone else to not let that drug control their lives.”
But just like with most drugs, including alcohol, marijuana and even “hardcore” drugs like ecstasy or cocaine, the vast majority of people can recreationally use a substance a few times in their life, or even a few times a year and never let it destroy their lives. But there always exists a minority that is incapable of that discretion. Admittedly, opioids and opiates are a particular kind of nasty when it comes to addiction potential. In their case, point the blame at the healthcare industry that passed them out like candy for decades despite knowing the consequences. Other drugs with only a fraction of the narcotic properties of opiate-based painkillers have been known about for decades, but they didn’t become mainstream because of politics and money.
We don’t have a complete understanding of what makes the addict’s brain tick, but it’s likely a combination of genetic and environmental factors. If a relatively fit man dies of heart attack at the age of 42 due to an undiagnosed heart condition, we don’t blame him for living an unhealthy life. It should be the same point of view for drug addicts.
I applaud the attitude in the United States shifting more toward this understanding. We’re finally legalizing drugs like marijuana and advocating treatment programs, while slowly realizing that incarceration and hard-nosed prohibition only fosters the black market.
Addicts need safety nets. They need to be able to call a clinic or seek help without the threat of legal repercussions, the threat of losing their job or being outcast by their family members. Less enforcement, less prohibition and more treatment and education are the only logical steps we can take to address not only curbing a health epidemic, but destroying both the legal and illegal markets that cause it.
Many don’t realize that a large portion of heroin overdoses occur when a user buys a particularly strong batch. They may use their normal dose, but because the drug was especially pure that time, it was just enough to tip the scales and kill them. Kids have been dying at raves and concerts in increased numbers in recent years because they’re given a pill that is supposed to contain MDMA (“ecstasy”), but end up taking a Chinese-synthesized research chemical like PMA, which can cause cardiac arrest in doses that are only a fraction of a typical recreational dose of MDMA.
It’s for these reasons that in places like the UK they’re experimenting with on-site drug testing labs at popular music festivals. One group in the UK has even been working with local police organizations with an outreach campaign telling young people that if they’re going to use drugs, they should test their substances with easily obtainable and affordable testing kits. They even go as far to educate them on what are the safest doses of many. And guess what happened during a major festival held last month that utilized these practices… zero reported deaths. Trips to the festival’s medical tents were cut by nearly half when compared to last year, too.
We all agree that we need to remove the criminal and underground element of the drug trade due to these kinds of risks.
The demand for drugs will never go away, but the amount we can curb the harm they cause to the individual and society is immense.
If my unknown neighbor was a drug addict, I can only imagine where he’d be now if we just had a more common sense approach to drug policy in this country.