Why the United States is losing the fight against addiction
Americans, and tragically a growing number of young people, are dying in record numbers from drugs. It speaks to how broken our society is.
The United States is sadly losing the battle against addiction. According to statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US recorded its highest number of drug overdose deaths in a 12-month period up to April 2021, passing 100,000 for the first time – a 29% year-on-year rise.
CDC data makes clear that the prevalence of opiate use, particularly fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid often substituted for heroin without the user’s knowledge, is the main driver. Many experts say that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its negative mental health effects, including feelings of social isolation, have spurred increased addiction issues.
However, this is not a new issue and has been getting worse for years. I should know, since I hail from Kentucky, a state, much like many other comparatively rural areas of the country, that is plagued with increasing “deaths of despair” that are dragging the average life expectancy in the US on a downward trajectory.
I have seen countless friends and acquaintances pass away, most often because of drugs or drug-related activity – and I’ve written about it previously for RT. One common theme that runs between each and every one of these cases, without exception, is a lack of opportunity in life. It’s my belief that people use drugs, especially ones like heroin, as an escape when day-to-day life becomes too unbearable.
However, don’t take my experience at face value, just look at the data. For example, the fact that drug use rates are higher amongst the unemployed and underemployed, which explains why drug addiction in the midwest has climbed since the 1990s.
There’s also the fact that heroin addiction, in particular, is three times more common in those making less than $20,000 annually as opposed to those making over $50,000. Or, as one 2013 study shows, most drug users kick their habits before the age of 30 if they’re able to secure a stable job.
It’s clear from the data that US drug policy, which is rooted almost exclusively in policing with no other social considerations, simply isn’t working. Policymakers need to look at a new people-centered approach that aims to solve the antecedent problems that create the conditions for addiction.
The first step in solving these problems is to recognize first and foremost that we are dealing with a systemic issue. Drug policy makers in the United States seem to be obsessed with the idea that drug use is an individual or moral problem, both of which are completely useless framings.
Drug use is obviously harmful, not least to the individual that uses them, but when you have millions of individuals addicted to substances and over 100,000 deaths in a 12-month period, this is a public health issue and needs to be treated like one. (Addiction is actually a diagnosable disease.)
It’s also ridiculous to chalk up all drug users as morally bad. This framing completely misses the point and has a similar effect to how, for example, homelessness is framed in the country, e.g., you must have done something wrong if you end up homeless. It’s bull.
The fact is that drugs are a form of escape for many people, and the question we need to be figuring out and then addressing is why people want to escape in the first place. When you consider that employee pay hasn’t been coupled with productivity for decades, that housing is unaffordable or that our votes don’t matter, it’s not really that hard to see why people feel that way.
It mirrors the same hopelessness coupled with addiction that plagued the Chinese for centuries as their nation was force-fed opium by the British Empire, or the former Eastern Bloc countries in the 1990s when the West tortured them with “shock therapy”. Except, in this case, the US government is imposing on its own people.
It also deserves a bit more perspective on the exact kind of drug-fueled escapism that is killing so many people. We’re not primarily dealing with hedonistic young people dying at parties, binge-drinking, and acting dumb, we’re talking mostly about opiate use.
Anyone who knows anything about opiates and opiate addicts knows that this is not a party drug, and the social isolation that it fuels is actually a major reason why people are dying since opiate overdoses are fairly easy to reverse if someone has proper medical attention.
So what we’re really talking about is people feeling so withdrawn from life, from society, and socializing in general that they’re using a powerful sedative drug in isolation, obviously aware they could die. This is an extremely profound point to think about and it really speaks to how bad things must be in the United States if so many people are doing this.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.