The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis released its interim report this week and the findings are stunning; 142 Americans die every day from a drug overdose.

“Drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined,” the report found, and the number of opioid overdoses has quadrupled since 1999.

The drug crisis is not only a human tragedy that cuts short lives while destroying families, it also has an enormous economic cost.  A study by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control estimated that opioid abuse cost the economy $78.5 billion in 2013.

Curtis S. Florence, who led the study, told the New York Times, “That’s definitely a conservative estimate.  It’s very hard to measure how it affects employers, but if we could, it would be in addition to what we see here.”

Beyond the research there is considerable anecdotal evidence that the drug crisis has become a major factor in hiring and retaining workers in West Virginia and other parts of the country.  The Times talked with employers in the Ohio Valley about their challenges.

Michael Sherwin, chief executive of Columbiana Boiler near Youngstown, Ohio, told the Times, “We are always looking for people and have standard ads at all times, but at least 25 percent fail the drug tests.”

At Warren Fabricating and Machining in Hubbard, Ohio, co-owner Regina Mitchell said four out of every ten applicants cannot pass the drug test.  Mitchell says they’ve had to lower their hiring standards by deemphasizing experience and skills just to find drug-free workers who might be trainable.

These companies are large enough to have established drug-free workplace policies.  Small businesses may not have the resources to drug test, according to the Drug Free America Foundation.  That puts those businesses at increased risk of on-the-job accidents and lower productivity.

“Employees who use drugs are only two-thirds as productive as nonusers, and their use contributes to increased thefts, damaged equipment and other unnecessary costs in the workplace,” according to the Foundation.

The solutions are complicated and expensive. The President’s Commission recommends a rapid increase in treatment capacity and more training in medical and dental schools to cut down on overprescribing of highly addictive drugs.

Dr. Clay Marsh, WVU Vice President and Executive Dean for Health Sciences, proposes a more holistic approach.  He believes the solution can be found in more organic efforts in communities to reestablish the importance of “the priceless gifts of family, independence and health” that will encourage people to live more purposeful lives.

There is no one simple answer. Experts, community leaders and policy makers should be bold in trying creative solutions, measuring results and then replicating those successes elsewhere.  We cannot eliminate the drug problem, but also cannot settle on a cold assumption that drug addicts have made their destructive choice and will suffer the consequences.

The cost of the worsening drug crisis reaches beyond the individual addict, wrecking families and damaging the economy.



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