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America facing lethal crisis, and media ignore it

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What took me by surprise at the New Hampshire primary is how much some members of Congress are concerned about opiate addiction. Many patients visit emergency rooms with what is called “drug-seeking behavior.” Doctors then try and ascertain if there is real pain. Recently, President Obama said that when patients can’t afford a prescription for pain medication, they purchase heroin, which is now cheaper.


In February of 1965, then-popular Life Magazine had a story on “Needle Park” in New York City. Heroin was more expensive in those days and not widely available. I was in junior high school, and the photo-essay/article was so memorable I can tell you what room in our house I was in when I read it. It was not widely available, so the story was exotic.


Now Congress is focusing on the heroin epidemic. It should. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the drug death rates in 2014. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Drilling down from those statistics, opioid addiction is driving this trend, with 18,893 deaths due to prescription pain relievers and 10,574 deaths in 2014 from heroin. Automobile deaths in 2014 were 32,657, making prescription pain killer and heroin deaths come in a close second, and ranking first if you include other mental health drugs.


How is it getting into the United States? According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy:


“In 2010, Afghanistan, as the world’s largest opium supplier, accounted for nearly 80 percent of the world’s opium. During the 1990s, Latin America evolved as the primary supplier of heroin to the United States, with Mexican heroin most prevalent west of the Mississippi and Colombian heroin most prevalent east of it.”


The National Drug Control Policy Office also says:


“An increasingly large portion of Afghanistan’s raw opium crop is processed into heroin and morphine base by drug labs inside Afghanistan, reducing its bulk by a factor of 10 to 1, and thereby facilitating its movement to markets in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East through Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia. In Afghanistan, there is a symbiotic relationship between narco-traffickers and the insurgency, as narcotics traffickers provide revenue and arms to the insurgency, while insurgents provide protection to growers and traffickers to prevent the government from interfering with their activities.”


So, as they said about Apollo 13, “Houston we a have a problem.” But the problem is a lot greater than Houston. It is everywhere but has increased most in the Midwest. The group with the highest rate of death from heroin is white people aged 18-44. This week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to combat heroin and pain-killer addiction, though a move to add funding for treatment failed. Although it was supported by two Republicans up for re-election, the $600 million treatment addition failed. One of the components of the bill is to provide naloxone, which can counteract overdoses. Overdosing is a big problem in two states with senators up for re-election, Ohio and New Hampshire.


The time has come to recognize addiction and opioid addiction as more than a moral failing, or just a problem filling our jails and prisons. Even our elected officials are beginning to understand that there is biology behind addiction, and that it’s not a moral failing but a huge public health issue.


Although drug interdiction has been a goal, it clearly has not worked effectively, and neither has prison. We have water along much of our border, and if our border with Mexico has holes in it, our borders along the coasts and with Canada have many areas drug traffickers can exploit. It didn’t help that Joaquin Guzman (El Chapo) was so easily able to supply the U.S. with drugs.


Although the bill was passed by the Senate this week, it is not certain to pass the House of Representatives. It could use a significant increase in funding for treatment. But it is an important start. Throwing people in prison and relying on a drug interdiction program that has had mixed results at best is not the way to reduce drug addiction and drug-related deaths. Commentator Jim Pinkerton says the media need to pay attention to this issue.


“Tragically and shamefully, the heroin epidemic has been mostly unnoticed by the media. This obliviousness is part of a larger pattern, in which the MSM (mainstream media), and the Establishment, have jointly ignored the real issues and concerns of the working- and middle-class.” He links this to the current political climate as well saying, “The Trump vote this year is a manifestation of Middle America’s desire to be heard.”


Drug overdosing is a huge public-health issue. We have managed to make cigarette smoking decline from 42 percent in 1965 to 18 percent in 2013. There is still much work to be done to get the rate even lower. If we can get cigarette smoking to decline, then we can and should begin to work on heroin and opioid addiction. It might take a while, but Congress is slowly waking up to the reality that it needs to act.


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