2018: THE YEAR IN REVIEW
At the start of 2018 there was little hope that the opioid epidemic could be brought under control. A record 72,000 Americans had died from drug overdose the previous year, and legislation aimed at curbing the crisis was stalled in Congress. Yet by year’s end the number of fatalities appeared to be leveling off in a few states and cities that had introduced comprehensive prevention and treatment initiatives. One dramatic success story was Dayton, Ohio, which reduced by more than half the rate of overdose deaths. The beleaguered city, once the epicenter of the opioid epidemic, implemented a program that included expanding long-term treatment options, establishing a community support network and utilizing peer-based counseling. All of these approaches are components of the Rosenthal Center’s anti-drug strategy.
The news is certainly encouraging, but we must build on this first sign of progress with an infusion of new funding. And by that I mean significantly more than the $8 billion over the next 5 years included in the opioid bill signed in October by President Trump. It will also require strong leadership on a national level that has so far been lacking. And we must learn from Dayton and other successful programs in Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. Currently only one in five Americans in need of treatment for drug abuse receives care, a tragic situation when, as a nation, we have the resources to ensure that every individual struggling with addiction could have access to effective treatment.
During the year, the Center continued to make its voice heard on a range of addiction issues. We responded to the renewed debate over safe injection sites – where addicts use drugs in a supervised setting – proposing alternative facilities that would instead transition addicts to treatment. I worked with a forward-thinking Indiana company, Belden, to design an innovative, corporate-sponsored treatment program for job candidates who had failed a drug test but were willing to enter treatment. And with methamphetamine use resurgent, I made the case in an opinion piece for The Hill that it’s time to shift the focus of national drug policy to the substance abusers – rather than the ever-changing substance of the moment.
A highly disturbing feature of the past year was the acceleration of the movement to legalize and commercialize marijuana. The pot lobby wooed politicians and the public, promoting the fiction that marijuana is totally benign despite strong scientific evidence indicating otherwise. New pot products flooded the market with dubious medical claims. And companies including Coca-Cola and the tobacco giant Altria eyed marijuana startups. Amid this frenzy, I proposed a two-year moratorium on legalization to study the drug’s impact on health and social behavior in legalized states as well as in Canada. It’s too late now to stop legalization. But a brief pause would give us time to assess and evaluate how to regulate the soon-to-boom marijuana industry and better protect such vulnerable groups as teenagers.
We approach 2019 with a sense of guarded optimism for further evidence of a slowing opioid epidemic if the appropriate policies, funding and leadership are provided. Our research will concentrate on the needs of vulnerable adolescents and other overlooked population groups. We will continue to voice concerns about Big Pot and the risks posed by an uncontrolled marijuana market. As always, the Center will advocate thoughtful solutions to challenging addiction issues, always putting the individual first and supporting policies that help people achieve rewarding lives without drugs.