Our Opinion: The long campaign on opioid addiction

It's a quiet kind of death — it doesn't involve mass shootings, airplanes getting blown out of the sky by extremists or the crash of metal as cars colliding at an intersection. Nevertheless, fatalities from drug overdoses have achieved epidemic proportions. Just last week, the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis released a report containing an eye-opening statement: "The opioid epidemic we are facing is unparalleled. The average American would likely be shocked to know that drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined."

Opioids comprise not only street heroin and its synthetically-produced relative, fentanyl, but also prescription painkillers — and therein lies the reason that this class of drugs has achieved such a foothold in this country. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, over 97 million people took prescription painkillers in 2015 (the latest year for which statistics are available), out of which 12 million used them in ways not sanctioned by a medical professional. In 2016, drug overdoses killed an estimated 59,000 people in the United States.

That same year, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health estimated that 1,979 residents died from an opioid-related overdose, according to The Boston Globe.

We are long past the point of looking at opioid addiction merely as a law enforcement or interdiction of supply issue. The epidemic has become so severe that we must attack it in a comprehensive way that employs a whole spectrum of strategies also include prevention programs, addiction treatment and counseling.

President Trump, unfortunately, has been slow to grasp the depth or breadth of the problem. Days after receiving the report from his drug addiction commission, however, he declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, a move that now allows the U.S. Public health service to bring its forces to bear on the problem, along with other government initiatives.

Meanwhile, individual states are making valiant efforts on the front lines. A recent story in The Boston Globe indicated that there may be glimmers of hope in at least in two Eastern Massachusetts counties, where the rates have dropped slightly. This however, may be due to more effective methods of saving lives after an overdose has occurred, such as the more widespread availability of naloxone, a drug that can claw back an overdose victim's life.

In the meantime, the rate of addiction and overdoses continues to grow, and this country must begin to realize that treating the symptoms and consequences of addiction is only a rear-guard action. If victory in this battle is ever to be achieved, we must address the underlying social causes that lead to addiction in the first place. To that end, the Berkshire County District Attorney's office recently instituted a youth substance abuse education program called LifeSkills Training, to help county students communication skills, resiliency and the ability to make good decisions.

The DA's office has been joined by the Brien Center and several other Berkshire organizations in this good fight. However, the entire journey to free the county, state and nation from the chains of addiction will take years of effort, and funding, at the local, state and federal levels.


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