Our drug war’s sanctimony and sycophancy

Brad’s family surrounded him on the joyous occasion of his graduation from one of America’s great Catholic universities, the kind of school where one makes connections that can propel a career for a lifetime. In that way Brad, a highly personable and reasonably competent if not inspired student, had already landed an enviable job and a place on the escalator that still reliably carries young people of his station to positions of professional and financial comfort.

But, a year later Brad’s ascent had gone awry. He cowered in a shower, terrified, hiding from a syringe that called to him from his bedside, hiding from the music and souvenirs of evenings spent in drug-induced euphoria, hiding from his phone and the thousand other triggers of his now reflexive impulse to inject methamphetamine. Desperately trying to cleanse himself of addiction, Brad had stripped naked and retreated to the most sterile place he could find, praying that the water’s warmth and percussive din would numb his senses and that the enveloping whiteness would calm his urge.

But, one trigger followed him. Massaged by the water and engorged by his rapidly beating heart, the veins in Brad’s arms bulged, demanding that he satisfy their compulsive need. Finally, shamefully, he did.

Recovery is hard, even for addicts like Brad who benefit from professional help and who haven’t yet alienated their families, acquired criminal records, or fallen into debt.

So, how much harder is recovery from addictions to meth and prescription pain medications for those who lack Brad’s advantages, who are impoverished, burdened with criminal records, and isolated in Appalachian backwaters where treatment and jobs are nonexistent and where there is little to look forward to even if sobriety is achieved?

That challenge faces tens of thousands of West Virginians and, because they are so numerous, we face it with them. We can’t ignore our drug-addicted neighbors and family members because their dependency, desperation, and, increasingly, their violence force themselves on us. While violent crime plummets in the rest of America, it grows in West Virginia. Jails burst with the addicted. The number of meth labs in the state has grown by factors and West Virginia leads America in death by drug overdose.

Meanwhile, we are woefully undermanned to face the onslaught, scandalously unprepared to help those in need before they turn to crime. Despite our profoundly greater need, West Virginia has only about half as many drug treatment programs and mental health professionals as surrounding states. And the wait times at the few available programs can be interminable, especially for addicts whose resolve, even when achieved, can be brief and must be seized.

The problem isn’t unnoticed. Politicians and editorial writers regularly describe the crisis in grave terms. Task forces are appointed, hearings are held, and always, inevitably calls for more drug testing are issued. But, if there is no help for those who test positive, of what value is testing other than to remind us of our depravity? But, what makes the speeches and editorials hollow is that they often omit any mention of opportunities we have to take meaningful action, but have so far squandered.

Twice recently the governor and Legislature could have enacted measures that would have expanded treatment and greatly reduced the availability of the ingredients used to manufacture methamphetamine, one of West Virginia’s major scourges. And twice, when confronted with opposition from tobacco companies, drug companies and retailers, they crumbled in spineless acquiescence.

The Governor’s Advisory Council on Substance Abuse recommended increasing the cigarette tax in order to fund desperately needed drug treatment programs. West Virginia, with its highest-in-the-nation rate of tobacco consumption and, by many measures, the least healthy population, also has the seventh lowest cigarette tax. In addition to providing for drug treatment, increasing the cigarette tax would have the happy effect of reducing smoking, improving health, and probably reducing medical expenditures. The governor refused.

The state Senate was equally remiss when, in a tie vote, it rejected a bill that would have made pseudoephedrine-based products available by prescription only.  Pseudoephedrine, contained in allergy remedies such as Sudafed and Claritin D, is needed to manufacture methamphetamine. Prescription-only laws in Oregon and Mississippi reduced by nearly 90 percent the number of meth labs and meth-related cases – an outcome that vastly outweighs any inconvenience caused by requiring prescriptions for medications for which there are many over-the-counter, non-pseudoephedrine-based alternatives.

Instead, West Virginia chose to implement the industry-backed National Precursor Log Exchange, which monitors pseudoephedrine purchases and attempts to block sales to individuals who exceed purchasing limits. The result? The number of meth labs as measured by busts has actually increased in West Virginia, an outcome a dissembling industry spokesman attempted to spin as proof that NPLEx was working by helping police find meth labs – a claim for which there is no evidence.

So, twice, when given the choice between saving lives and families or protecting industry profits, our governor, our senators and editorial writers chose and continue to choose the latter, perpetuating West Virginia’s pattern of obsequious kowtowing to corporate interests.

When these leaders next speak about West Virginia’s drug crisis, as they surely will, listen to their sanctimony and then, when they are done, in the name of decency, remind them of their inaction and shame them for their hypocrisy. Maybe then a few can be goaded into finding the courage to save lives rather than profits.

In my most recent column to run in the Spirit, I mistakenly listed cystic fibrosis as one of many medical conditions whose incidence is increased by burning coal. Cystic fibrosis is a genetically transmitted disease whose symptoms are merely worsened by pollution from burning coal.

— Sean O’Leary can be contacted at seanholeary@gmail.com. This column and others can be seen at www.the-state-of-my-state.com

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