President Obama visits West Virginia today to address the drug epidemic. This is not a politically friendly environment for the President, but West Virginia is absolutely the appropriate venue to draw attention to the ravages of drug addiction.
If today is a statistically average day, one to two West Virginians will die from a drug overdose. Before the year is over, drug overdoses will have claimed the lives of over 600 West Virginians.
West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources officials say most overdose deaths involve multiple substances, but a couple stand out. Of the 628 drug overdose deaths in the state last year, most were linked to prescription drugs; 199 were Oxycodone-related, while 133 were attributed to Hydrocodone.
In fact, West Virginia had the highest rate of prescription drug overdose deaths of any state last year—31 per 100,000 people. The next closest state was New Mexico, at 25 deaths per 100,000 people.
Our state has plenty of winding roads and our share of drunk drivers, but the number of people killed each year in car accidents in West Virginia is half that of drug overdose deaths.
A crackdown on pill mills combined with doctors becoming more cautious about prescriptions for pain killers has helped. Oxycodone-related deaths have slowly declined over the last five years, while Hydrocodone-related deaths have at least leveled out.
However, heroin has reemerged as a drug of choice. The DHHR figures show heroin-related deaths have increased from just 34 in 2010 to 165 last year, and 97 so far this year. Heroin creates an additional health risk because of needle-sharing, which spreads deadly diseases like hepatitis and HIV.
Death is the ultimate price for drug abuse, but the monetary costs for drug addiction are staggering. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that the health and crime related costs of drug addiction, as well as lost productivity, are approximately $193 billion annually in this country.
West Virginia has become more aggressive in fighting drug abuse and some communities are trying controversial needle exchange programs to slow the spread of infectious diseases among addicts, but it’s been 44 years since President Nixon declared the war on drugs and it shows no signs of abating.
One reason is it’s not easy to quit. “Drug addiction is a complex issue, and quitting takes more than good intentions or strong will,” reports NIDA. “In fact, because drugs change the brain in ways that foster compulsive drug abuse, quitting is difficult, even for those who are ready to do so.”
Will today’s Presidential appearance help? West Virginia DHHR Cabinet Secretary Karen Bowling hopes so. “I believe President Obama’s visit… highlights the struggle that individuals and families face with substance abuse, not only in this state, but across the nation.”
Perhaps what can be accomplished today is not unlike the addict attending their first narcotics anonymous meeting—acknowledging the problem is an important step.