EDITORIALS

Matter of substance: Drug addiction as disease, not subject of shame

Posted Dec. 12, 2012, at 5:57 p.m.
A map of law enforcement agencies in Maine that accept unused medicines for disposal. For more information visit www.safemeddisposal.com.
A map of law enforcement agencies in Maine that accept unused medicines for disposal. For more information visit www.safemeddisposal.com.

Kenji Yamauchi spoke recently about his struggle with addiction, how he started with marijuana at age 13 before trying psychedelic mushrooms, cocaine, LSD, Ecstasy, methamphetamines, Vicodin and heroin. Now 23, he said this summer he overdosed for the second time.

He watched friends die from drugs. He lost touch with his family. He thought of suicide. But he found the Addiction Resource Center at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, which he described to the Sun Journal as “a second chance I really didn’t deserve.”

Thousands of people in Maine have stories similar to Yamauchi’s. They are stories of a disease, which, if not treated, will kill them. “Addiction” means someone needs drugs to function normally. It is a medical problem, and overcoming it requires both physical and psychological treatment.

Maine can do much more to treat and prevent addiction, particularly among young people. That means all medical professionals and employees affiliated with schools and community groups should be better able to recognize risk factors and catch youth before it’s too late. One of the strongest indicators that someone will eventually become addicted to drugs is drug use early in life.

Nowhere is the state’s substance abuse crisis more prevalent than among young people. An incredible 14 percent of Mainers between the ages of 18 and 25 misused prescription drugs in 2008 and 2009, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Young adults also reported the highest rate of cocaine use, at 8 percent.

Mentors and guardians should be aware of risk factors, as some youth are more likely than others to become addicted. They may have a family history of addiction or trauma or have another psychological problem, according to the Mayo Clinic. Peer pressure and lack of family involvement are strong factors in causing young people to start using drugs. Also, males are about twice as likely to have drug problems.

But even though experts know what leads to addiction, little is done to stop drug use before it starts.

“Unlike other diseases, we do little to effectively prevent and reduce risky use, and the vast majority of people in need of addiction treatment do not receive anything that approximates evidence-based care,” Drew Altman, chairman of an addiction treatment commission at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, wrote in a June 2012 report.

Clearly, failing to prevent and effectively treat addiction results in a tremendous number of social, economic and health problems.

“CASA Columbia estimates that risky substance use and addiction are this nation’s largest preventable and most costly health problems, accounting for one third of hospital inpatient costs, driving crime and lost productivity and resulting in total costs to government alone of at least $468 billion each year,” Altman continued.

CASA Columbia recommended overhauling current approaches. Specific examples include the following: Physicians and other medical professionals should incorporate screening for risky substance use into routine medical practices; curricula surrounding prevention, intervention and treatment of addiction should be required at medical schools; nonphysician professionals, such as dentists, physician assistants, nurses, pharmacists and social workers, should be required to undergo training to address risky substance use and addiction; and addiction treatment facilities should have to meet certain national accreditation standards.

Just as rules must change, so must minds.

Maine and the country are fighting a war on drugs, not addiction. By concentrating more on the law-enforcement end of the problem, communities have too often punished those who need help and perpetuated the stigma of addiction as a social problem — not a medical problem. Misperceptions about addiction — that it shows a moral failing or a lack of willpower — have only made it more difficult for individuals and families to seek treatment early.

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