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News from the front lines of the war on drugs is unchanged: We’re still losing.
And despite the introduction of a few new weapons in the war — which dates back to the Nixon administration — our body count keeps growing.
According to a preliminary estimate released by the federal Centers for Disease Control last week, North Carolina saw the second-largest increase in opioid deaths in the nation last year — a 22.5-percent jump from 2016. Although the final numbers for the death toll are still coming in, the CDC estimates that 2,505 North Carolinians died from overdoses of opioids and other drugs last year. More than 12,000 North Carolina residents have died in this drug epidemic since 1999.
The deaths multiplied despite increasingly widespread distribution of overdose reversal drugs like those carried by Fayetteville police officers for several years now. The culprit in many of the new deaths is the potent and inexpensive drug fentanyl and its derivatives. The CDC says the drug is 40 times more powerful than heroin. It’s often mixed with other drugs, in varying proportions, which means drug abusers can never be sure about the potency of the drug they’re about to inject. As Duke University medical professor Larry Greenblatt puts it, “It’s a crap shoot. People put something in their vein and who knows what it’s going to be?”
We shouldn’t be surprised that the epidemic keeps growing. Most of our laws, money and government efforts are little changed since the 1970s. Despite the fact that we’re nearing 50 years of failure, many of our lawmakers and policy directors still cling tenaciously to a belief that our top priority should be the interdiction of drugs and and arrest of those who smuggle and sell them.
We have long failed to understand how these officials believe they can repeal the law of supply and demand. The simple fact borne out by decades of experience is that there will always be someone smart enough and willing enough to set up a drug-smuggling operation that will be successful at least for a while. And there will always be people on our streets desperate enough for drugs and money to sell the stuff. Arrest one and the next one steps up to take his or her place. The supply of willing participants is almost infinite. And so is the supply of users, because this country still fails to place sufficient emphasis on treatment and prevention.
One small but compelling example in our own backyard: Cumberland County has one of the most serious opioid-abuse problems in the country. At last check, we were in the top 20 in the nation. Public health officials estimate there are tens of thousands of people in this county with opioid addiction problems. Yet we have only three or four dozen inpatient addiction-treatment beds here. And once former users are clean, it takes years of ongoing treatment to keep them that way. We don’t have enough of that, either.
We can resign ourselves to losing thousands of our children, friends and neighbors to these deadly drugs every year, or we can decide to try new approaches to drug abuse — a well-funded prevention program and an extensive treatment program that gets people off drugs and keeps them off.
There are plenty of model prevention and treatment programs out there and plenty of experts to design new ones. What’s missing is money — enough money to build new treatment facilities across the country and add prevention programs in our schools and communities, with sufficient staffing and emphasis to make a difference.
Ultimately, it’s up to state and federal lawmakers to decide on a new course, or choose instead stick to a well-worn and failing path.