Pubdate: Wed, 11 Nov 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company


New Data Show Progress, but No Room for Complacency.

REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL candidates have spent much of their time on 
the campaign trail lately pledging more treatment and less punishment 
to deal with epidemic drug abuse, most dramatically in a viral video 
featuring an emotional New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. This is a 
welcome development - even if the GOPers, like their Democratic 
counterparts, exaggerate the degree to which arrests for simple 
possession of drugs, as opposed to trafficking, have swollen the 
prison population. The more attention leaders focus on the 
heartbreaking rise in prescription opioid and heroin addiction, and 
overdose deaths the better.

According to the latest Drug Enforcement Administration data, in 
fact, the candidates are raising their voices at a time when federal 
and state policy has already begun to shift - and to show results.

The United States' 21st-century drug abuse problems have been rooted 
in legal drugs rather than illegal ones: specifically, massive 
diversion and abuse of prescription opioid painkillers, which led to 
a spinoff rise in abuse of chemically similar heroin. The DEA's 
freshly issued National Drug Threat Assessment Summary shows that 
drug-induced fatalities are the leading type of injury deaths in the 
United States; indeed, they outnumbered motor-vehicle fatalities by 
more than 10,000 in 2013, exactly the reverse of the situation 10 
years earlier.

However, other statistics in the same report are more hopeful. The 
share of DEA survey respondents around the country reporting "high" 
illicit availability of opioids shrank to 56.7 percent in 2015 from 
75.4 percent last year. The percentage of high school seniors abusing 
prescription drugs declined from 15 percent to 13.9 percent between 
2013 and 2014. Possibly this is related to more cautious prescribing 
attitudes among physicians, as reflected in the decline of narcotics 
disbursed by manufacturers, from the all-time high of 17.2 billion 
doses in 2011, to 16.2 billion in 2013. Data for the first nine 
months of 2014 suggest a continuation of that trend. The "pill mill" 
phenomenon is being brought under control, with the help of State 
Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs.

The grimmest statistic in the DEA report is the near-doubling in 
heroin overdose deaths between 2011 and 2013, from 4,397 to 8,257. 
This is partly an unintended consequence of the reduced illicit 
availability of prescription opioids, as those addicted to pills 
switch to cheaper heroin. The jump-starting of previously dormant 
heroin markets in small-city and rural America is one of the saddest 
offshoots of the prescription opioid flood; whether it proves 
temporary or permanent will depend in large part on the policies 
implemented in the next presidential term and beyond. The DEA's 
evidence of an incipient leveling off in opioid abuse provides no 
basis for complacency, but some reason for optimism.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom