Why things are getting worse, not better.
In 2017 alone, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses, an almost 10% increase from 2016. Each day, 190 men, women, and children die from this scourge, with no end in sight. Nationwide, drug and alcohol-related deaths account for 150,000 to 175,000 fatalities every year — roughly the total number of US military combat deaths in The Spanish-American War, Korea, Iraq (both times), Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, The War of 1812, The Revolutionary War, The Philippines, and The War in Vietnam combined. So why is this problem so out of control? Is it really just because there’s no big, beautiful Southern Border Wall?
(Spoiler alert: Nope!)
While there is no such thing as a simple reason for such a complicated problem, there are six things that are certainly making the problem worse. Let’s start with the opioid epidemic.
1. Americans have a love affair with pain pills.
While America makes up less than 5% of the world population, Americans consume more than 30% of its opiates, much of which are legally prescribed. In 2017, 50,000 people died from opiate overdoses alone. Every year, that number grows larger. Emboldened by the Trump Administration, the DEA has imposed tight restrictions on prescribers, though this seems to have only made the problem worse by pushing addicts into the illegal drug trade, or worse — encouraging the use of heroin, which is far less expensive than pain pills and far more deadly.
2. Americans refuse to accept that alcohol is a ruthless serial killer.
Opioids only account for a third of all drug-related deaths in America. The majority, somewhere between 80,000 to 100,00, are caused by alcohol abuse, which points to another causal reason why so many Americans die every year from this epidemic. Culturally, we don’t acknowledge that alcohol is a dangerous drug, despite overwhelming evidence that proves that it is.
If you find fault with this assertion, consider the fact that alcohol kills five times as many people as heroin annually, yet is perfectly legal, heavily advertised, and a frequent component of social gatherings.
3. We do a TERRIBLE job teaching our kids about drugs.
Drug Abuse Resistance Education (known as D.A.R.E.) is the gold standard when it comes to educating our nation’s youth about the dangers of illicit drug use. Founded in 1983 as a partnership between the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. public schools, it rested on a simple premise — local officers go into schools to talk to kids about drugs. The idea here was to empower kids to make good decisions.
The only problem with D.A.R.E is that there is no evidence that it works. Research like this one and this one show that the program has almost no effect on substance use among minors. Not that we need a study to show us this, given the rates of fatal overdoses in the US continue to rise.
4. Conservative politics has poured gasoline on the fire for decades.
When Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, one of the first actions he took was to cripple mental health and substance abuse treatment services in America by repealing a Bill that President Carter had just signed called The Mental Health Systems Act, which would have provided federal dollars and grants for community mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities across the nation.
Soon after, First Lady Nancy Reagan launched the ill-conceived and totally ineffective “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, which grossly oversimplified the complexities of drug addiction and encouraged Draconian drug laws that emphasized incarceration over treatment. When George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, he continued Reagan’s policies unchecked.
After 9/11, the War on Drugs seemed ready to die down, given the country’s focus on foreign terrorism. Not to be undone by his father, George W. Bush breathed new life into it with an unprecedented allocation of funds and a drug czar who zealously demonized marijuana and advocated the drug testing of students. During his Presidency, the country bore witness to the militarization of domestic drug law enforcement. By the end of Bush’s term, law enforcement was conducting 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans every year — mostly for nonviolent drug offenses. Not only did this have zero effect on reducing illicit drug use — it ended up encouraging the current methamphetamine and opioid epidemics, including the resurgence of heroin.
So, 38 years after Reagan took office, drug overdoses are at record a high and more than 150,000 people are dying every year. The national deficit has suffered as well, due in part to the costs associated with all the hospital stays and trials and prisons and deaths and lost productivity that comes with a nationwide drug epidemic.
And now, as if all that other stuff isn’t awful enough, Donald Trump is captain of this voyage of the damned, and he thinks a Wall will solve everything.
5. Donald Trump is making things worse.
In January of 2018, Trump tapped a laughably unqualified former campaign volunteer named Taylor Weyeneth to run the Office of National Drug Control Policy and combat the opiate epidemic. He was 24 years old at the time. He ended up resigning just a few short weeks later, but only after news broke that he had lied about his qualifications on his resume. This really happened, by the way. Here’s the link to an article about it.
So then Trump put former stand-up comedian turned campaign manager Kellyanne Conway in charge of things, and one of the first things she did was to ignore a bunch of experts and create a cabinet full of a bunch of unqualified political types to help her beat this thing.
Now, of course, the federal government is shut down over the Border Wall, which Trump argues is necessary to combat the massive amount of illegal drugs entering this country. Whether we need a wall on our southern border is a much larger debate, but the idea that it would somehow stem the tide of illegal drugs is just silly, as is Trump’s insistence that solutions can solve complex social problems.
Trump is obviously not responsible for America’s drug problem, but his rhetoric — shared by the Republican Party — is criminally negligent. The roots of drug and alcohol abuse are cultural, social, economic, spiritual, and medical in nature, and it’s foolish to think that criminalizing those affected by it is a sound strategy. But of course that’s exactly what we do, and one only need look at the body counts to see just how well that plan has worked for us.
6. Our priorities are not what they should be.
It’s not just the ignorant rhetoric, or the over-reliance on the prison system, or the incredibly racist federal mandatory minimums, or the war on the black community — it’s the gross waste of money that has resulted from it.
Substance abuse alone costs the US about 442 billion dollars annually, in terms of health care, accidents, lost work productivity, law enforcement, and resulting legal issues. That’s 442 billion. With a B. Every year. By way of comparison, we spent 113 billion on public education in 2016. Let that sink in for a moment.
This is the number that should really piss you off — we only spend about 14 billion annually on treatment and prevention. If you ever wanted to know just how little this country respects those who struggle with alcoholism and addiction, all you have to do is look at the amount of money allocated for treatment. This is also true for the mental health field, too. Dorothea Dix would just be so proud of all we’ve done.
Fourteen billion dollars. That’s about 40 bucks a year for every man, woman, and child in this country. Or, you know, 3% of what it costs to deal with all the awful shit in this country that drug and alcohol abuse causes. For the sake of comparison, the federal government spends about 2,000 dollars a year for every person in the country for our military.
While we should hold off on gutting the budget for national defense, we really need to expand our definition of what constitutes a threat to our security to include things that are actually killing Americans by the tens of thousands. ISIS, after all, isn’t killing 165,000 Americans every year. We can’t very well solve the opioid epidemic by dispatching the 7th Fleet to every pill-mill and meth lab in rural Appalachia.
We need a massive influx of dollars if we’re going to beat this thing. And I mean massive. Spend a week working in the field of substance abuse treatment and you’ll quickly discover with lightning speed that there are not enough beds, there are not enough hospitals, there are not enough counselors, there are not enough doctors, and there’s not enough hope, because salaries are about 60% what they should be, the bureaucracy is beyond explanation, and the workload is overwhelming, because we are dealing with a national emergency with all the focus and urgency of a family trip to Costco. And until we get serious about this as a nation, the body count will continue to rise.
What do you think makes the problem worse? Leave a comment below.