Not that parents need to worry about more things, but consider this statistic from “Not Just a Big City Problem” at Platteville High School Feb. 18:
The number of children ages 12 to 17 who have tried heroin is up more than 300 percent since 1995.
Readers old enough to remember their high school experiences, where the illicit drugs of choice in, for example, the 1980s were alcohol (in the 18- and 19-year-old-drinking-age days) and marijuana, should be shocked to read that statistic.
Another is the startling comment from Grant County Sheriff Nate Dreckman that he considers heroin to be a worse problem than methamphetamine. That’s remarkable when you see before-and-after photos of meth addicts, as well as the toxic waste site that is a meth manufacturing operation.
And yet, one dose of meth doesn’t apparently kill you, while one single dose of heroin can.
(You can vote yourself at www.swnews4u.com/polls/detail/102/ as to what you think Southwest Wisconsin’s biggest drug abuse problem is.)
One speaker at the forum said he knew of heroin addicts who had started with tobacco and alcohol, graduating to marijuana and then heroin. Others reported heroin users’ getting their starts on prescription drugs.
The former is ironic not just because of the May 2012 arrests of 21 Platteville people on marijuana charges, but also because of the apparent growing public support to decriminalize or even legalize marijuana. Speaker Vicki Allendorf, whose three sons became addicted to heroin, said her ex-husband was an alcoholic.
That makes one wonder the extent to which heroin addiction is the result of some sort of predisposition to addiction to anything. Years ago, I heard a speaker at two area schools on alcoholism, something he and his daughter had experienced. As soon as he arrived at one school, he asked for black coffee, and suggested he drank coffee like water. That made me think at the time that he’d substituted one addiction for another, though considerably safer, addiction.
The tie between prescription drugs and heroin addiction is ironic to me because several years ago, I attended a college academic symposium on the study of death and dying. (It was work-related.) The symposium one night featured a UW Medical School researcher who suggested that health care was insufficiently responding to pain of people with chronic medical conditions. The researcher suggested that if someone with a chronic medical condition became hooked on painkillers, that might not be as bad as living with severe chronic pain.
That might be an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Allendorf said her oldest son asked to borrow her prescription medicine left over from her back surgery. One of the law enforcement speakers said he had seen heroin addicts who started on Ritalin, which is doubly ironic since Ritalin is a stimulant and heroin is a sedative. Police officers have told me that addicts switch from prescription drugs to heroin because the latter is less expensive.
Speakers at both the sessions held by the S.A.F.E. Grant County Coalition and the Grant County Sheriff’s Department decried the lack of residential rehabilitation facilities in this area, as well as insurance companies’ refusing to pay for inpatient rehab at facilities that don’t have an on-site doctor and nurse. That’s probably because, even with the reported steep increase in addicts, this area doesn’t have enough of them to make operating a treatment center profitable. (Even nonprofits need to bring in more money than they spend.)
Back to marijuana for a moment. A newspaper publisher friend of mine responded to an area Assembly candidate who favored decriminalizing marijuana by saying “The last thing this country needs is another mind-altering drug ingested for recreational purposes,” adding, “Responsible adults don’t smoke marijuana recreationally.”
In the middle of the arguments over whether marijuana is harmful or marijuana use is a victimless crime, my publisher friend neglected to point out that “smoke marijuana” could be replaced by “drink alcohol,” “use tobacco,” “eat fattening foods,” “watch TV,” “go to movies,” or any other number of non-productive recreational activities, which, legal or not, have existed as long as human beings have walked the Earth. The attempt to eliminate drinking, Prohibition, didn’t eliminate drinking, but it did bring on organized crime, which didn’t go away when Prohibition ended.
The question that ties together all of this column to this point — a point not even asked in the aforementioned exchange — is what has happened to Americans’ coping skills over the years. We are a long way from the days where daily survival was an open question. I’d say that as our lives have gotten easier over the past two centuries, our ability to deal with problems has gotten worse. But that ignores what seems to be the case about biological causes of addiction. So to say that addiction is a character flaw seems to not be the case, and more than that isn’t the point, even among law enforcement.
This area has seen four overdose deaths that were not suicides in less than two years — in Platteville in July 2012, in Boscobel in January 2013, in Fennimore Aug. 31, and in Mineral Point Dec. 26. Three of the four were heroin overdoses; the fourth was a morphine overdose. The victims were, in chronological order of their deaths, 28, 18, 24 and 28.
I’ve come to the end of this column, and I see no very good answers. Platteville Police Chief Doug McKinley called addiction “a personal hell I can’t even imagine.” That sums up this subject as well as anything.