Among the problems facing our country today, one of the most heart-breaking is the thousands of deaths caused by the growing drug epidemic. What is especially shocking is the increase in hard drug use in suburban communities. Heroin, in particular, has moved from inner-city neighborhoods to sleepy little communities across the country. The CDC reported that the number of deaths directly attributed to heroin overdose nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013. In 2013, there were nearly 44,000 deaths across the country from drug overdose, making it the leading cause of accidental death in the country.
Drug abuse is not new, but it has evolved with each generation. In the 1960s, LSD and psychedelics were the drugs of choice. In the 1980s, while heroin use skyrocketed in urban areas, drug abuse in general declined around the country. That may have been due to the “just say no” campaign launched by First Lady Nancy Reagan. One study indicated that marijuana use by high school seniors dropped from 51 percent in 1978 to 36 percent in 1987 and to 12 percent in 1991. Heroin use also fell from one percent to half a percent.
So what’s causing today’s epidemic? What has changed in recent years?
In part because of increased opium production in Afghanistan and Mexico, heroin has become relatively inexpensive and readily available. In some areas a bag of heroin costs less than a pack of cigarettes, and can be purchased without ID. But availability is only one part of the problem.
The second element is society’s increasing acceptance of drugs.
Many older Americans would agree that our social mores have changed in recent years. We are becoming a more permissive, less judgmental society, and it’s reflected in our approach to drugs. Today, for example, many states have legalized personal use of marijuana. Though the link between hard drugs and marijuana is not firmly established, it is worth noting that many of the states that have legalized medical or recreational use of marijuana also suffer greater use of hard drugs. It’s too early to say whether that may be attributed to the so-called “gateway” properties of marijuana or to the generally more tolerant atmosphere in those states.
Take, for example, New Hampshire. This once-conservative state recently approved medical use of marijuana, and overwhelmingly supports decriminalization of the drug, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group for marijuana. New Hampshire also happens to be one of those states hit hardest hit by this heroin epidemic.
Accompanying this liberal attitude towards drug use comes more compassion for the addict. This new benign approach is reflected in a recent headline appearing in the Manchester Union Leader: “Concord rally pushes for action on addiction, end of stigma.” But as medical professionals, health organizations, and politicians like Democratic Rep. Ann Kuster work to remove the stigma, we wonder if that is really the problem. Does the stigma play any role in the decision to try heroin? When Kuster announced at the rally that substance abuse, like diabetes, requires life-long treatment, she was right. But she didn’t mention the obvious fact that one was 100 percent preventable.
The disease analogy may seem compassionate, and it’s clearly aimed at helping addicts, offering them encouragement and renewed self-esteem. But how does it deter addiction?
What message does all of this send to young people who may be confused, those who might be looking at drugs as a solution to their problems? To call heroin addiction a disease is to relieve them of their personal responsibility. It tells them, if they become addicted, it’s not their fault, that maybe they’re just afflicted with some predisposition to drugs. It blurs the line between right and wrong.
Besides, the disease analogy is weak. Yes, sometimes mental illness leads to drug abuse, but not in most cases. Mental illness, trauma, stress, and this so-called predisposition to addiction cannot explain today’s epidemic. Those issues existed in past generations, yet there was no widespread heroin abuse.
We will likely never eliminate this scourge, but there are things we can do. Yes, we need to treat addiction, but shouldn’t we be focused on prevention? Shouldn’t we try to learn what compels young people to take that first fateful step? We can certainly dry up the source of drugs by imposing the stiffest penalties the law allows on the peddlers, those who profit from the misery of others.
More importantly, we need to re-shape the attitudes of our children at home and in school. If they’re not too young to learn about safe sex, they’re not too young to learn about the horrors of drug addiction. If they learn to look at drugs with revulsion, not curiosity, it would be a step forward.
Our message to them must be clear and unequivocal. Chemical dependency is the predictable result of inhaling, ingesting, or injecting an addictive substance. Heroin is illegal and highly addictive. If you use it, you may evade arrest, but you will become an addict. Even if you find help, the road to recovery will be hard. The relapse rate is somewhere between 40 and 60 percent. Yes, you will be stigmatized. You will likely not find meaningful work. You will certainly never realize your full potential. Your life and the lives of your family will be shattered. And it will be a result of your decision.
Peter Lemiska has spent more than 28 years in government service. He is a former Senior Special Agent of the U.S. Secret Service and an Air Force veteran. His political commentaries have been widely published on line and in print.
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