Deaths due to substance abuse: The numbers keep growing and growing

“We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

— Pogo Cartoon, Walt Kelly, 1953

According to recent statistics from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) more Americans died in 2016 from all forms of drug overdose (71,614) than there were U.S. combat deaths during the 19 years of the Vietnam War (58,220). As the CDC points out, the numbers are staggering! When combined with deaths due to Alcohol, the numbers are intensified greatly…unimaginably and most devastating; and continue to grow and grow to the day of this writing. We may be engaged in wars throughout the world, but our number one war, and the associative battles are happening right here in the USA with the use and abuse of licit and illicit drugs!

Now, not all of these deaths were attributed to the Opioid Epidemic that is sweeping the nation, but were due to other drugs as well. The CDC tells us that 20,145 deaths were due to Synthetic Opioids; 15,446 were due to Heroin; 14,427 deaths were due to Natural and Semi-Synthetic Opioids; 10,619 due to Cocaine; 7,663 deaths due to Methamphetamines; and 3,314 due to Methadone. As mentioned, these numbers are truly staggering, particularly when one looks at the rates of 1999, in which that total number was less than 5,000. When the CDC report was released in October, major newspapers, such as the New York Times and the major TV networks, ran articles on the statistics; yet not much was reported at the grass-roots level in our Nation. We Addiction Professionals have followed the trends closely for a number of years; have written about it, given public presentation to the facts, and have net-worked on the subject.

I remember all too vividly the media giving us the daily “body count” during the Vietnam War, yet at no time in our history of the media have they given a “body count” of those who have died at the hand of substance abuse; even though the count has greatly exceeded the casualties of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the current War on Terror. Change in our nation only takes place beginning at the grass-roots level. I challenge all of you readers to join with me in taking as stand on Drug Abuse and Addiction; to join with me in requesting that our Representatives and Senators, as well as our media, take a stand to end this senseless slaughter of our citizenry due to Drugs. For you see, my friends, deaths due to drugs is not selective; those who die are of all ethnicities, all age groups, and all socio-economic classes. Many of you readers know of a Son or Daughter, Niece or Nephew, Husband or Wife, a close Friend or acquaintance; that have died at the hand of drug overdose and/or addiction; yet this is not usually publicly known.

Dr. Gregory Lawton, MD, in a recent article published in Medscape (“Drug use in parents: Why we’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat,” Medscape, Oct 27, 2017), he points out to us the complexity of the problem, and the issues that must be addressed if we are to combat the problem.

First we need to recognize that drug addiction has a biological basis. It is a medical condition. A growing body of research should slay the myth that drug addiction is merely the result of a moral failure. Second, it is most important to recognize that drug rehabilitation, not incarceration, is more appropriate means to address the underlying issue. Third, we need our policymakers to understand this scientific reality; to fund programs, to support law enforcement and judicial policies that are based on the scientific reality of addiction and mindful of the financial cost to taxpayers, and the social cost to our citizenry. Fourth, we need to keep up the battles on the home front by speaking out in our communities. We must work even harder to reduce the social stigma and apathetic thinking relative to drug addiction. We need to “retire” the terms and phrases that often support this stigma, such as the terms “Druggie,” “Dope Head,” “Pot Head,” etc. Addiction to any chemical substance is a neurophysiologic condition…persons addicted to drugs. We need to speak out in community groups, through letters to the editors of newspapers, and amongst each other. Lastly I suggest that we develop our empathetic understanding toward the person with an addiction…yes, they made a choice to first use drugs, but when addiction takes over there is no further choice.

For many years now we have approached the problems relative to drug abuse as a “three pronged attack:” Interdiction, education, and treatment. I suggest we install another prong on that pitchfork; a prong of the “body count.” Giving our citizenry a true daily or weekly picture of all of the deaths related to drug abuse and addiction is long overdue. This certainly raised awareness of the public during the Vietnam War, and it is most worthy to consider in our current War on Drug abuse and Addiction, and the death rates that are attributable. We become most saddened and aware as a nation when a sociopathic killer slays 26 individuals in a small town in Texas (and rightfully so), while on that same day around 200 people were “slain” by drug overdose in our nation.

Statistics gleaned on deaths attributed to drug abuse and addictions are always a year late; it is very, very difficult to gather current local, state, or national statistics. Local Emergency Rooms and Hospitals are most reluctant to offer any data on the overdoses they receive in their facilities. For this reason we must get our media in tune, to assist in gathering data, and to contact our Senators and Representatives to help. What I am suggesting, as with the case of our past Wars, is that a daily or weekly “body count” be provided to our citizenry…only then will people realize that we are truly in a War related to the consumption of licit and illicit drugs in our Country; and I start in saying that about 200 individuals will die today from Drug Overdose in the United States. We, as a nation, are not doing all we can do to combat this problem; although our President and some members of Congress take it seriously, most do not. In our Great State of Texas, as well as nationally, most of the Legislators do not want the “bother” of getting involved; unless, now get this, they have a relative who died as a result of Drug abuse/Addictions. Yes my friends, we have certainly met the enemy, and he is truly us! Until Next Time, Stay Healthy My Friends!