Dead-End Drugs

Posted Aug. 24, 2010, at 6:17 p.m.

Two recent stories in the BDN testify to the scourge that is drug abuse and addiction. It is tempting for those whose lives do not incur the wrack and ruin that comes with prescription drug addiction to merely shake their heads. But these problems affect us all.

The first story reported the closure of the methadone clinic in Rockland after the facility’s owner and a staff counselor were arrested on felony drug charges. The second story highlighted the rampant prescription drug abuse and addiction in Washington County. Both stories are evidence of the depth and breadth of the problems that come with the abuse of such drugs.

Opiates interact with the brain in a way that other drugs do not. They create a physical dependence, and withdrawal creates symptoms similar to a bad bout of the flu. Life while addicted to these substances is no picnic. Relationships with family and friends suffer, education and emotional maturation are stalled, employment is spotty, and when the cost of the drugs exceeds the dwindling income, the addicts often turn to crime. And death by overdose is always looming as a possible end.

Clearly, these drugs are destroying lives in numbers too large to accept.

While heroin is manufactured outside the U.S. and imported, most of the other opiates are distributed legitimately through pharmacies. That so many of the pills — Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin — end up in the street drug market is a damning indictment of the system of oversight. Some pharmacies have reacted to the crime by no longer carrying some of these drugs, and the patients who legitimately need the pills suffer. Putting an end to physicians prescribing such drugs is not the answer.

But a campaign to educate physicians about the amount of pills they prescribe and to persuade their patients that opiates are not the answer to all of life’s aches and pains could reduce the volume of pills available on the street. Chronic pain can be incredibly debilitating and make life barely worth living, but there are ways to manage pain other than dousing it with chemicals. And when the pain is short-term — from surgery, a minor injury — physicians should consider prescribing fewer pills, or requiring an evaluation before prescribing more.

Methadone, which was introduced over 50 years ago as a replacement drug for heroin, has created its own problems. Its use can be seen as a capitulation to dependency. And with more addicts turning to it, an illicit market for the pills has developed.

There are no easy answers. Just saying no is certainly not one of them. But these kinds of drugs are destroying too many of Maine’s young adults, a population that faces enough hurdles with few economic choices. Parents and educators must warn children at an early age that these substances are not on par with splitting a six-pack of beer or a joint with a friend; experimenting with these drugs has lifelong consequences.

The best way out may come in small steps through attending regular meetings of self-help groups like Narcotics Anonymous. The struggle against such problems must be undertaken in schools, churches, families and communities — just as we all suffer the consequences, we all must shoulder the burden of supporting recovery efforts.

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