America’s Substance Abuse Crisis: We Can Do Better

Former Governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush is unveiling a new plan to address the nation’s staggering substance abuse problem. Unfortunately, this plan offers a lot more of the same failed policies of the past, like strengthening the border and focusing on criminal justice, actions that do not address the changing using patterns of addicts or the needs of their families. However, his policy outline offers us an opportunity to take a look at the changing face of addiction and addiction treatment.

What substances are people abusing and what does that mean for addiction treatment? Alcohol and alcoholism have always topped the treatment agenda. Alcohol hands down is abused more than illicit substances. But alcoholism is in some ways different from prescription pain medication addiction, the current up-and-comer in substance abuse. Alcoholics tend to abuse alcohol for many, many years, decades even, before the physical ailments associated with alcoholism – cirrhosis of the liver, neurological problems, etc. – and the social issues – loss of marriage, work, and so on – catch up with them. Fifty years ago, the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous were filled with middle aged and aging men and a sprinkling of women. That was the face of addiction treatment then.

Now, even since I got into the business of treating addicts more than a decade ago, everything has changed and that is due entirely to the over-prescription and abuse of prescription drugs. In my treatment center and in institutions across the country, we see far more painkiller addicts than we ever have before. And these are the lucky ones who get to treatment, not the 44 people who die in America every day from prescription painkiller overdose. The National Safety Council reports that our nation’s overdose deaths add up to 43,000 a year, including deaths with prescription painkillers in the deadly cocktail. This still doesn’t top the 88,000 lives lost each year to alcohol, but is that really a number we want to surpass?

The statistics are clear:

That information blows my mind each and every day, but it means nothing until I look into the eyes of someone whose life has been hopelessly unraveled by prescription drug abuse. That is when my heart really breaks, because by and large, this kind of substance abuse is preventable. Efforts to strengthen the borders so that drugs don’t get into the nation or continuing with harsh criminal penalties for substance abusers really doesn’t address the prescription drug scourge we face.

I’m a guy who helps addicts get clean, using the best science and support we have available. To me, this struggle is not something I click off at the end of the evening news, but an ongoing, daily battle – hour by hour – to help people piece their lives back together, to pull them back into the land of the living and quite literally save them from despair and death. Our national experience tells us that getting tough on users by tossing them in jail or trying to keep smugglers from getting drugs into the country are largely efforts in futility. The best place to put our efforts and tax dollars is in substance abuse prevention and early intervention, access to quality mental health services, and proven-effective addiction treatment. This is the formula that reunites families and saves lives.