The New Plague
When I was in Europe this past summer there were 3 terror attacks in a span of 16 days, which claimed the lives of 91 people. These tragic events were massive news stories with governments around the world pledging to fight global terrorism with every resource available. Unfortunately such stories have become all to commonplace as 2016 was the deadliest year for suicide bombings on record killing approximately 5650 people worldwide. But such cowardly acts of terrorism aren’t just a new phenomenon. During the 20-year period spanning 1995 through 2014 a total of 3503 Americans were killed (roughly 3000 of which occurred on 9/11) by terrorism at home or abroad.
As a response to such events, our country has waged two wars at an estimated cost of $5 trillion, not to mention the countless lives of American servicemen, enemy combatants, and civilians killed as collateral damage. Statistics aside, terrorism still looms as a very legitimate threat to our way of life. But as scary and important as the issue of terrorism is, there is much deadlier threat to our way of life lurking in the shadows. This threat has yet to fully emerge in the daily news cycle, and though much more deadly than terrorism, it was seldom if ever mentioned in the recent presidential election. It seems it’s only an issue if it relates to you personally, and odds are, it does affect you or someone you know. Just imagine if there was a 911 every month in our country and no one really talked about it?
Of course drug abuse is far from a new issue and to be fair, we dance around the matter by talking about the various problems associated with drugs – crime, drug dealers, and gang warfare garner their fair share of headlines. Issues like the legalization of marijuana is frequently front-page news as well. But the real issues in and around drug abuse to this day have yet to hit the mainstream media. Specifically the real underlying issue is our nation’s insatiable appetite for ALL drugs, whether legal or illegal. Culturally, our mantra seems to be that ‘drugs are not just a possible answer, but THE answer.’ Despite America’s 30 year war on drugs attacking the supply of illegal drugs, the sad irony is that the real issue of drug abuse is a problem many didn’t see coming. While our country has a long history of drug use and abuse from the prohibition era to the 60’s counter culture, never has there been such a massive tidal wave in the use of both illegal and legal drugs happening at the same time in history. It begs the question, ‘How did we get here?’
As an account executive in the media business during the early to mid 90’s, my clients included everyone from fast food outlets, to car dealerships, to nightclubs. Notably missing from my list of clients - drug manufacturers. All that changed in 1997 with the FDA easing regulation for prescription drug advertisements on broadcast media aimed at consumers. While such methods are still illegal in most of the industrial developed world, here in the states some 20 years later, the phrase “ask your doctor about” is probably the most widely used phrase on television. And as suggested, plenty of people have taken this not so subtle marketing request to heart. The result has been a huge spike in legal drug usage in the US with nearly 3 out of ever 5 people in America taking at least 1 or more prescription drug. Furthermore, 1 out of 10 Americans take an antidepressant and an estimated 26% of our kids are on stimulants or medications. According to Scientific American, we Americans take four times the amount of antidepressants than we did in the early 1990’s.
Clearly some medications are necessary and enhance the quality of lives of many. That said, drug overdoses and drug poisonings have now surpassed car accidents as # 1 cause of accidental death. That’s not even factoring in ‘medical’ errors which kill over 250,000 people a year and is the third leading cause of death in the US according to a prominent study by John’s Hopkins University. Furthermore, the problem with legal drugs correlates in part to the problem with illegal drugs. That is, the dramatic increase in prescription drug usage follows a similar trajectory to that of the rise of illegal drugs such as heroin. 22% of our population now has illicit drug problem. So much for the ‘war on drugs.’
America has a fairly short list of lost wars. Vietnam sticks out in the minds of most. 58,000 American servicemen and women lost their lives in this senseless and tragic war. Now we essentially have a Vietnam every year in drug overdose deaths. In the 1980’s, Nancy Reagan famously declared our nation’s “war on drugs” which by any standard must also be considered a lost effort. While this war is still being waged, the result has simply been a dramatic increase in the US prison population and the supply of drugs now being provided by Mexico or inside our borders instead of in far off places like Columbia. The reality is you can build prison after prison, or a 100-foot high border wall, or even go to war with the most advanced army in the world, but as long as the demand for drugs persists, those drugs will find a way to their intended end user.
Culturally we are still stuck in the moralistic debate about which drugs are bad and which drugs are good. We’re still stuck on attacking the supply of illegal drugs while we promote a hefty glut of legal ones. We’re stuck on punishing drug dealers and users, despite the clear evidence that such policies not only don’t work but exacerbate the problem. No one dares to address what is really going on – our cultural overreliance on drugs (whether pharmaceutical, recreational, or otherwise) to ‘solve’ issues. We don’t see the correlation of addiction to the rise of narcissism and inability for individuals to be alone with their thoughts. We don’t see the unintended consequences of deregulation and mass capitalism left unchecked. In short, our society has a drug problem - not an illegal or a legal drug problem, but all drugs.
My point in this narrative isn’t to bash drugs. Drugs are a technology and technology as we have seen with the internet is neither good nor bad, it’s both. Where would be without google maps? Probably lost! And thank goodness for wikepedia when I want to know just about anything, and of course, I love accessing the up to date scores on my sports aps from my beloved Portland Timbers. But for every advancement in technology, there also comes a downside. Technology unchecked and unregulated can be a very dangerous thing. The internet has countless well documented examples of negative consequences from increased anxiety to isolation to depression. The same logic applies to ‘technology’ of drugs. Drugs save lives and yet drugs ruin lives. We must sooner than later address the underlying cultural dynamic that is our insatiable appetite for drugs. What are the answers to such a complex societal issue?
The first step begins with a productive dialogue. In a sad state of irony, we need to borrow a page from the 12-step program for drug addiction, starting with step 1. That is we need to collectively admit that WE as a society have a problem. That means calling drugs what they are – dangerous substances that deserve to be feared, respected, and controlled. We need far more publicity in and around the issues of addiction, overdose, and the unintended negative consequences from drugs such as reactions or misdiagnosis. At the vary least, we need to balance out the onslaught of drug marketing to consumers (from beer ads to drugs for restless leg syndrome) with an equal amount of attention spent on highlighting the potential negatives associated with drug use. Specifically, we need robust public service announcements, engaged public town halls, and vigorous congressional debate. Issues in and around the demand side of drug addiction and abuse need to move to the forefront of public policy. We need to wage a new war on the demand of drugs, doing whatever it takes to combat the ails of drugs through prevention and treatment.
The public needs to wake up and stand up in highlighting this issue. As important as the issues of ISIS and transgender rights are, they frankly pale in comparison of the issues around drugs. We may cry foul at the news media for such a focus, but we are the viewers. It is up to us to demand responsible journalism and a focus on the more important issues. To that end, in following the American’s Medical Association’s lead, we as consumers also need to demand tighter regulation on the pharmaceutical industry and an end of the mass media campaign aimed toward the public consumption of more and more drugs. Furthermore, we need to hold our government accountable who seemed more concerned with filling their coffers with tax revenue then with protecting the populace they are elected to serve. Most importantly, we need to protect our children and get them off drugs whether legal or illegal, except in cases where absolutely necessary. It’s high time to wage a new war on drugs and wake up our slumbering, overly medicated populace. It starts by us controlling the message instead of the message controlling us.