The image of deadly drugs invading our streets, our schools and our homes from far-away lands, brought here by sloppy brown-skinned people who illegally cross our borders, long predates the sitting administration. Though that is a significant part of the hobby horse that this president rode to power.
There is a grain of truth in that meme, though no foreign army ever forced Americans to become addicted to any substance. They were just happy to take our money.
But, as a recent report from a panel of public health and law enforcement agencies in Utah demonstrates, the wave of addiction and death that most affects us now was, and is, American born and bred. The opioid epidemic was brought to us by well-heeled corporate executives and salespeople, whose promotion of what turned out to be a highly addictive and astoundingly deadly family of drugs was respectable and legal.
Until, at least, the state of Utah, several of its counties, and many other states, filed civil lawsuits against some of the against the makers of those drugs. Until one of those corporations, Purdue Pharma reached a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma, even as it seeks bankruptcy protection from future financial penalties.
The wave of addiction and death attributed to the misuse and over-prescribing of opioids has hit Utah hard. And the hardest hit parts of Utah are either rural areas, especially Carbon and Emery counties, where treatment options are scarce. Or urban neighborhoods in Salt Lake City and Ogden with a large number of low-income households and the homeless for whom lack of access to medical treatment is financial, not geographic.
The report stresses that while there is a flow of illicit compounds threatening the lives of our families and neighbors, the vast majority of opioid-related deaths are linked to prescription drugs.
It’s not as simple as some doctors just being too quick with a prescription pad, though that’s part of it. There also appear to be a series of factors that, thankfully, we can address with some new protocols among health care professionals, law enforcement agencies and social service providers. Many of them won’t even cost that much money.
As is often the case with drug abuse, widespread education is a big part of the solution. Among those needed to be educated, though, are doctors, pharmacists, sheriffs and others who stand at various choke points in the chain of opioid addiction.
The medical profession, the report recommends, should be required to consult a state database of opioid prescriptions to find those who may be doctor-shopping for more drugs. Doctors and clinics should be more careful about prescribing other medicines that aggravate the effects of opioids, even as they become more aggressive in providing the anti-overdose medicine naloxone and the addiction-weaning methadone.
Those who operate prisons and jails must be more aware of the needs of those who are already addicted to opioids, while they are incarcerated and as they are released.
The part that will cost money is the need for more treatment services and beds. But we already knew that. It is one of the many reasons Utah remains incredibly foolish in refusing to accept the full expansion of Medicaid — as offered by the Affordable Care Act and demanded by the voters in the last general election.
The report doesn’t go there.
Another angle that was outside of the panel’s portfolio is the state’s slow movement toward the provision of an alternative treatment for the very real pain that moved most victims toward opioids in the first place. That’s the implementation of a medical marijuana production and distribution system, for which the state is in the process of the necessary bureaucratic rule-making.
There are many threads to this problem. But official Utah does seems to grasp one key fact.
This is on us.