On addiction and the failed war on drugs

On addiction and the failed war on drugs

The war on drugs has made government more powerful, citizens less free, and hasn’t helped users or addicts. – Former Congressman Victor Mitchell

It’s remarkable how a visit to the emergency room can put things in perspective. Some of you may recall my ill-advised mid-March fall on the ice put me in the ER for the first time in over 15 years. Aside from a little pain I was fine, but sitting in that waiting room for three hours reminded me of just how lucky I am.

There was the young man – a veteran I assume – with no legs below his knees, the wheelchair bound woman fighting cancer who didn’t appear to have much time, and a number of heart patients having difficulty drawing their next breath. And they all sat there patiently waiting in that vastly understaffed and interminably slow Delnor Hospital emergency room where a general indifference reigns supreme.

It’s a crime they have to endure that absurd cattle call just to get basic medical treatment, and we’re all responsible for it.

In light of some recent reports from the Chicago Tribune and CNN, I’ve been juxtaposing that ER experience with our approach to addicts in the failed War on Drugs. And that ongoing mental process continues to trouble me because there’s no way of resolving the two.

Here’s what I mean.

Coming from a long line of alcoholics, I was molded by addiction throughout my youth. Then I watched my three brothers succumb to it one by one. I’m not exactly sure how I managed to escape that self-inflicted slow torture, but I believe it’s a matter of making the right basic choices because, at its core, addiction is a choice and NOT a disease.

Take smoking for example. Once you choose to light up that first cigarette, it can turn into a disease – lung cancer – but the act of smoking itself isn’t one. In the same vein, nobody ever forced anyone to take that first drink, oxycontin pill, or heroin injection, but if abused long enough, those substance alter the brain to the point where the user no longer has any control over them.

But a disease from the outset? No! Genetics may render some more susceptible to addiction, but the social/medical claim that it’s always beyond the addict’s control is just another post self-esteem movement attempt to absolve them of any responsibility for embracing their own decline. And the failure to accept any responsibility whatsoever makes a full recovery much more difficult.

Per the opening quote, the greater irony is, instead of solving the problem, the War on Drugs made it exponentially worse. I’ve said it many times before, the second the government cracks down on a substance as simple as synthetic cathinones, or “bath salts,” the manufacturers have a new formula in stores within weeks.

And the new drugs are almost always more deadly than the former varieties.

When the DEA and law enforcement decided to eradicate heroin, the Mexican cartels simply shifted to making fentanyl, a synthetic opiate 50 times more powerful. Just two milligrams of fentanyl, or the equivalent five grains of salt, can kill you. And it’s far easier to manufacture than heroin, too. All you need is a large vat and an oar to stir the mixture.

Since we never learn from our mistakes, cracking down on prescription opioid abuse brought us xylazine, or “tranq,” an animal tranquilizer that’s taking the U.S. by storm. Per CNN:

Between 2020 and 2021, overdose deaths involving xylazine increased more than 1,000 percent in the South, 750 percent in the West, and about 500 percent in the Midwest, according to an intelligence report released last year by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

But as terrifying as those numbers are, it’s what tranq does to user’s bodies that’s the stuff of horror movies. Prolonged exposure causes severe necrotic (rotting flesh) wounds that rapidly spread beyond the injection point and can take months or even years to heal.

Since xylazine isn’t an opioid, the standard antidotes like Narcan and Naloxone are utterly ineffective. And because we can’t begin to keep up with the flow of new drugs, it’s not even illegal yet.

As much as I understand the pull of addiction, I cannot fathom why anyone would play the fentanyl version of Russian roulette, or worse yet, persist in using a drug that turns you into a Walking Dead zombie. Which brings us to my core conundrum which is, what do we owe addicts who’ve completely given up on themselves versus what we owe chronically ill heart and cancer patients?

To be fair, we’re not talking about a zero-sum game where every winner creates a corresponding loser. If we cut defense spending by a mere 10 percent, we’d have enough money to pay for the necessary social programs ten times over. And some cancer and heart patients have abused their bodies every bit as badly as drug addicts. It would be a nightmare to try and rank medical cases by their purported merit.

But medical resources are limited. So, when I read about Narcan vending machines on college campuses, nurses pushing regular folks to carry and administer opioid antidotes, and well-intentioned groups trying to make them a staple at music festivals, my mind immediately races back to that cancer patient waiting for hours in the ER. I have to admit that the inequity of enabling hopeless addicts in this manner makes me nauseous.

I would much rather see those funds go to someone who, through no fault of their own, finds themselves in a very tenuous healthcare position.

That’s not to say that we should abandon addicts. Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain, who’s had great success with his County jail rehab pod, was kind enough to engage in a 30-minute conversation on the topic. And while I wholeheartedly agree with his contention that the rehab door should always be open, there’s a big difference between an open door and actively enabling people who’ve given up on themselves. As difficult as it is for most of us to admit, some people can become irrecoverable.

Ron also reminded me that most addiction is a form of self-medication for a trauma. But there are far better choices than fentanyl or xylazine, and if you’re foolhardy enough to open a newspaper these days, you’ll quickly realize this planet is traumatic on a daily basis.

I’m not sure if I’ve come to any real conclusion other than addiction is a choice that can become a disease, the only answer to illegal drugs is to end the war on them, and, within the bounds of reason, I’d rather see our limited resources go to that cancer patient than to an addict.

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