Last month, my son lost one of his best friends to what was, according to acquaintances, an accidental fentanyl overdose. This has been devastating. It has also shown us that fentanyl is not a drug impacting “others” living “somewhere else.” It is as accessible to our kids as illicit substances like heroin, cocaine, meth (even though it is far stronger) — and may be more accessible because it can be found legally in home medicine cabinets.
The Colorado Sun reports, “statewide, overdose deaths involving fentanyl ... more than doubled, rising 111% to 452 deaths last year from 214 in 2019. All overdose deaths, including from heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, totaled 1,223 in 2020, up nearly 20% from 1,062 the year before, according to state health department data that is preliminary and expected to rise even higher.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 70,000 Americans died from drug-involved overdose in 2019, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids.
This, of course, should be of concern for everyone. But as a parent, one of the scariest things about raising teenagers is their exposure to and possible experimentation with drugs. Is this something they try once at a party and decide is not for them? Or maybe they have the willpower to not try it at all. Or, maybe they are the kid who is immediately hooked and whose life becomes a downward spiral of addiction. The truth is, we don’t know how anyone will react to certain substances until they try them, any more than we understand addiction or the extent to which it is rooted in trauma.
American Addiction Centers cites drug overdoses as the No. 1 cause of injury-related death in the U.S., killing nearly 44,000 people per year. Rehab facilities often boast of success rates of around 30 percent, but does that reflect sobriety a few days, or six months — or years — after release? And it is clear that criminalizing addiction is not working either. Or as James P. Gray, former prosecutor and federal judge puts it in his book, Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed: A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs, “most of the social harm related to drugs does not come from the effects of the substances themselves but from legal prohibitions against their use.” There are obvious flaws in our legal system and we’ve spent billions of dollars on resources (to include on an all-out war) we know are not working.
The pandemic has shed light on the grief, isolation, job loss, financial pressures, housing crises and more experienced by marginalized segments of society. It would be a shame to let this opportunity to explore and address issues related to addiction go to waste. But with or without a pandemic, people with addictions are still members of our society. They are not just “those people over there who run with the wrong crowd.”
We’ve heard lots of plans for reviving the economy once the pandemic is behind us. But we’ve heard little about plans to address the trauma this pandemic has caused in people’s lives. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is a step in the right direction, as it will earmark funds to provide better access to mental health care. But what does that mean to the person who has no place to live and no way to get to treatment? We need to shift our view of the mentally ill and drug-addicted in our society (the two are often related). If someone has cancer, we don’t shame them into getting better. Why do we view the fallout from trauma differently?
We, as a nation and a state, are in repair mode. We’ve vowed to “build back stronger.” Now is the time to advocate for the systems supporting those with drug addictions and the mentally ill. Again, it would be a shame to let this opportunity go to waste.