Sounding an alarm on the opiod epidemic

As citizens, what is our role?

Americans have been increasingly taking drugs of abuse for half a century. Deaths from opiates have been particularly alarming in the last two years. Sixty three thousand, six hundred Americans died in 2016. Because of opiate overdose deaths, the American life span has declined for the last two years.

“The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis,” published on November 1, 2017, stands out as current and comprehensive. Nonetheless, prevention is discussed in only eight of the 138 pages of the report. Prevention must be the centerpiece, or else the effort will be successful only at the margins.

We need a major public health campaign. Citizens must be activated. There needs to be a major consciousness raising effort about the dangers of ingesting any and all substances of abuse. Those who are vulnerable, especially children at risk, will need special attention.

Should we undertake this campaign, it will be very tough going for at least a couple of years. The current abuse patterns are too entrenched. Furthermore, being social creatures, we human beings respond to peer influences quickly and easily. We will need to get to the point where we see all around us people saying no to the use of illicit drugs. That will be the tipping point. Only then will the campaign become a resounding success.

But alas, how can this happen when substances of abuse are so profitable? The current entrepreneurial spirit among the new cannabis purveyors in California is strong. Governments are thrilled with the prospect of new taxes on pot. Very few seem to care if teens shrink their brains and deadly accidents rise due to marijuana.

Then take the case of cigarette smoking. We can be proud that America led the world in reducing smoking. However, further reduction is stalled largely due to the profits that the government makes from taxing tobacco! The same is true for alcohol abuse, which is again on the rise. Shall governments seek to address the problem when they have become so dependent on taxing alcohol?

I raise the alarm. Our citizens should not be fooled into thinking that new treatment programs and tighter regulation will significantly affect our deadly opiate epidemic. Only people power in saying no will accomplish the task. If we establish new norms of abstinence in our communities, the drug dealers will become glum. They will have very few customers.

Guatemala is a good case example. The citizens will not use illicit opiates, so the drug gangs bring the dope north to sell to us. Why won’t Guatemalans use illicit opiates? It is mainly because they have large extended families and are active in the Catholic Church and some protestant congregations with strong communities. Guatemalans have internalized the norm of saying no. We must do likewise.

Charles Bensonhaver, MD, is a psychiatrist who trained at John Hopkins University Hospital. A native of Lancaster, Ohio, he served in the United States Public Health Service treating narcotic addicts. He is past chairman of the board of directors of a methadone maintenance clinic in Dayton, Ohio; a clinical professor of psychiatry at Wright State University School of Medicine; and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Bensonhaver resides on Seabrook Island.

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