Illustration by Andrea Ngeleka
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The sinister scythe that is the opioid crisis within the United States continues to reap the lives of our loved ones, has amassed a body count surpassing the Vietnam War, and remains largely unchecked, if not encouraged by laws passed in the interest of personal gain, our collective naivete in regards to the subject and the inhumane yet popular public sentiment that those who use drugs do not deserve help.

By the time you go to sleep tonight,  115 people will have lost their lives due to opioid overdose. This staggering statistic will repeat itself daily. This means that enough people roughly to fill a small commercial airliner will die everyday until something can be done to reduce or change this. In order to address this as a society however, we have to understand our slanted perspective on the matter and how it came to be.

From a very young age, we are inundated with audio and visual content aimed at painting an image in our minds of the drug user. On television, the lowlife, back-alley, drug addict thug or the high school friend turned enemy when they took to drugs and became ‘evil’. Antagonist after antagonist is thrown our way until we start to get the picture that drugs are bad and the people who use them worse. If this marketing approach wasn’t enough to convince you, the D.A.R.E. program could shurely fill in the gaps. It teaching the importance of avoiding ‘bad’ decisions and ‘bad’ people so as not to ruin your life but avoids lessons like not allowing your self esteem to be affected by your decisions so you do not lose hope in yourself or how to not alienate but compassionately help a family member or friend who has turned to drugs.

These approaches to educating our youth, while meant to steer children away from drugs, unfortunately leave them unaware of the chemical changes in the brain that occur and how severe of a problem addiction is. Also, these leave them with a harmful misconception of the drug user that will not only affect their self esteem when they begin decision making but cause them to be an alienating force rather than a helpful one when their friends begin making decisions, therefore perpetuating the problem. As a child, when my brothers turned to drugs it was very difficult to reconcile what I had been made to believe about the drug user with my brothers whom I adored.

Most associate overdose with needles, heroine and a scrawny stranger out of their mind on drugs. For this reason, it would come as a surprise that somewhere around 80% of overdose cases were individuals with a legitimate prescription for pain medication.

In the late 1990’s, a new kind of drug dealer hit the streets dressed in a lab coat and weilding a prescription pad. As large pharmaceutical companies convinced Congress and doctors that the risk of addiction and death was not an issue with this new ‘miracle pain drug’, the number of prescriptions written skyrocketed. Years went by before we as a society realised what was going on and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) began to crack down on prescriptions written. This left those already addicted and with no guidance and to choose between purchasing these pills on the black market for double or turning to the much cheaper and more potent heroine.

This was two decades ago, and the crisis has only grown from there. Nevertheless, Congress is still passing laws that can only make things worse. In 2016, after millions of dollars in contributions to the campaigns of certain members, Congress passed a law that would essentially prevent the DEA from stopping suspicious shipments sent by pharmaceutical companies, a powerful tool in preventing large quantities of drugs from hitting the streets. The attitude of this administration toward the crisis is not helpful either.

While our president has gone through the motions to make it seem like he and our government is taking this issue seriously, his actions tell a different story. Trump has twice given a speech indicating that this crisis is now a national emergency but he has neither requested nor allocated any additional funding to go toward improving the situation. He has not put the proper paperwork in motion which would allow state governments to access emergency relief funds in order to combat the issue. He has instead used this issue to lay credence to his campaign stressing the importance of a border wall and has attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act which provided millions with mental health and addiction coverage and assistance.

Growing up watching my mother lose sleep and years of her life trying to get my brothers the help they needed was hard. She was calling different treatment centers, begging them to accept them or to cover the cost as it was in the thousands. She heard the same frustrating answer from every last one of them, “we cannot accept them into rehab unless they can pass a drug test” or “we can only take them in once they hit rock bottom”. Not only is getting an addict to pass a drug test near impossible, but for most, rock bottom is death. When my oldest brother passed away in 2014 two days before his 33rd birthday due to complications related to drug use, I ceased believing that this issue was not personal and that these deaths appearing in the millions could not reach my backyard.

This crisis is growing and quickly. We have got to start taking this issue seriously as a society. We have to exercise compassion in our everyday lives when interfacing with those afflicted. We have to rise up as a nation and contact our local and federal government officials to implore them to open up funding for treatment centers and health coverage, to create effective and new curriculum at the elementary, middle, and high school level and to make Naloxone, a medication that reverses overdose, widely available for drug users to keep on hand when overdose does occur so it does not result in death.

We have to confront this issue with an understanding that these people are not low life nobodies, they are somebody’s mother, brother or son. Just because they are plagued with an ailment that is rather taboo does not mean they do not deserve help. These are human beings, our fellow citizens. With death rates rising as they are, it is only a matter of time before there isn’t anyone left to say, this does not relate to me.

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