Drug champions

March 3, 2019

For years I assumed Americans were the largest consumers of prescription drugs in the world. It surprised me when a good doctor friend, Paul, told me that wasn’t true. I learned he was right as the French are more talented at consuming prescribed drugs than my fellow citizens.

I was pleased to learn we don’t hold this dubious title, but wait, not so fast. If you factor in illegal drug consumption, a statistic that is a somewhat hard to monitor, I’m confident we blow the French away. Winning the overall drug consumption trophy should be virtually assured as a University of Michigan report discussed in Science Daily in June 2012 found U.S. teens twice as likely as Europeans to use illegal drugs.

However, it was good to learn the same study found American teens are far less likely to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes due to perceived health risks.

Still, U.S. teens are more inclined to try illegal drugs, and as adults many continue to indulge in these substances. Given that we started drug prohibition activities in the U.S. in 1914, and that we have conducted a massively expensive war on illegal drugs since the Nixon era, why is that so?

Multiple studies estimate the annual combined loss to the U.S. economy for drug addiction problems to be in the billions. When you factor in all impacts, including tobacco and alcohol, articles found in Psychology Today and at Addiction-Treatment.com calculate the current total annual cost to be in excess of one trillion dollars, an astonishing number.

Some of the factors used to calculate the loss include increased crime with incarceration costs, lost work productivity and added health care expense. Our insatiable drug consumption also fuels a secondary form of deadly warfare in various places to control the markets for this illicit trade.

I have seen firsthand the damage done by alcohol, cocaine and meth addiction. Brain alteration, job and relationship loss, and death are but a few of the serious consequences. It feels like the devil is at work when I see someone struggling with profound addiction.

People all over the globe are addicted to drugs, and their abuse is considered a serious health problem. Given the negative impacts, do we really want to lead the world as the greatest combined users? The problem warrants intelligent government action toward reducing Americans use of all drugs.

The solutions are complex, but a few thoughts come to mind. There are those who argue we should legalize all drugs and let people be the guide of their own folly. I understand the argument due to the colossal failure and expense of our war on drugs, but outside of marijuana, which should be legalized nationwide, I am hard pressed to support open access to more powerful drugs.

However, we should eliminate criminal charges for the use of illegal drugs, but maintain heavy sanctions for those who market toxic poisons. There is no sense in continuing to fill our jails with non-violent people solely because they have an addiction problem.

America would be better served to move resources away from criminalization and incarceration towards treatment and rehabilitation, while doing everything possible to restrict access to serious drugs, especially for minors.

Quality education of our youth regarding the nature of addiction is also essential. The anti-drug materials I saw as a child were directed more at scare tactics, and we are failing to fully and timely inform children about the long-term health impacts that can occur due to decisions made when they are teenagers. Where the one study found American teenagers are using less alcohol and cigarettes, education must be having some impact, and anything we can do to increase and improve knowledge regarding the extended harm from all drugs would be good.

A recently released book written by neuroscientist and reformed addict, Judith Griesel, is titled: Never Enough. An interview I read about the author’s book reports that our brains do not fully mature until we are in our mid-20s. The acts of binge drinking in youth and other adolescent drug behaviors are actually thought to lay a blueprint in the brain for future addiction. This may be one explanation why so many adults continue to use addictive substances after their experimental years.

Since the anti-establishment rebellion that occurred during the Vietnam War, I have thought Americans would begin to lose their taste for illicit drugs, but that hasn’t happened. This suggests an underlying societal problem exists when so many people feel the need to escape daily reality. Americans have excess funds which enables consumption, but is there any other explanation for continuous drug consumption once you factor out those fighting addiction?

The obvious answer would be it feels good to be high, but over time that is a false energy. The hangover the following morning can be a heavy price to pay, and the need to get high again to recapture the feeling is a potential vicious trap on the road towards addiction.

I am not judging anyone as I have used alcohol to excess and “inhaled” on occasion, and binge drinking with my peers was common during my late teen years, as attending keggers was a rite of passage.

As I researched this article, I found myself wondering if better education at an earlier age would have changed any of my actions. It is speculation now, but I have always found that knowledge is power, and having it at hand has positively impacted other decisions in my life.

The flip-side adding to addiction problems in America is our fondness for legal drugs. It is somewhat encouraging to report we are No. 2 in per capita world use, but the statistic isn’t one to brag about, and our use of prescription drugs is rising. Why again do we use so many prescribed drugs?

Have you noticed when you seek medical care from “Western” medicine that you are almost always prescribed a chemical to balance the ailment? It is obvious American doctors do not have much time to chat about the lives and habits of their patients — so write another prescription. Is it basic human nature to seek the quick fix, or has this become the habitual norm for medical treatment in America?

More than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017 and the deaths are increasing. That number exceeds all American casualties in the Vietnam war. We are fighting a different war for survival these days in the U.S. related to drugs, and the frightening opioid addiction problem has partially developed due to past overprescribing of these legal medicines.

There is so much money to be made selling prescription drugs in America, and the companies can’t spend enough money to promote their latest product. You commonly see ads touting a new miracle-fix drug followed by a lawyer’s advertisement for a class action suit against another drug producer for one of their products that didn’t turn out so well. The pharmaceutical industry should be held accountable for its greed-driven complicity in this problem, which is predicted to get worse.

The sad thing is we have a societal problem with illicit drugs, and as people age we also have prescription doping. Older people have more health issues, and America’s medical system overloads many of them with multiple pills. Those over 65 use 1/3 of all prescription drugs in America but are only 13 percent of our population. This age demographic is increasing as will its drug use given current medical practice.

Studies indicate the average 65-year-old is taking three-plus prescriptions, with older women using on average 5, and people in nursing homes are given even higher levels of drugs. The issue of elderly drug abuse and misuse has been largely hidden from sight in our country.

Part of the problem with elders is that many age issues like memory loss, disorientation, lack of balance, shaky hands, and mood swings can be caused by drugs rather than age. There are also issues with aging from pain, to boredom, to depression that increase the chances for drug abuse by the elderly.

How many of you have an older relative who needs a pill box to keep their myriad assortment of drugs organized on a daily and weekly basis? The amount of chemicals we pour down the elderly in this country is disturbing. Can so many human bodies truly be so out of whack that they need a mass of daily pills to maintain equilibrium?

It’s no surprise cases of poisoning occur due to the confusion caused when older people take multiple drugs. There are significantly increased dangers from drug interactions as the number of prescriptions increase. Polypharmacy, which is the concurrent use of multiple drugs by patients, can cause seniors to have adverse health reactions from medications.

I have handled cases where people died from drug poisoning taking their overlapping medications as prescribed. It is also easy for elderly people to forget if they have taken their multitude of drugs (hence the pill boxes).

There has been a recent development within American medicine called deprescribing to better assess elders who are on multiple medicines to determine if some drugs can be eliminated. More of that kind of assessment should be done by doctors especially where senior patients are concerned.

Obviously many health conditions do occur where medicines are essential to improving health, but more evaluation needs to be done in American medicine to address the root cause of health problems, rather than prescribing yet another pill.

From the cradle to the grave, whatever we can do to reduce Americans excessive use of all drugs, would be a positive development. Focusing on preventive actions and the forces that trigger addiction, while redirecting resources toward rehabilitation and increased education for all ages, would be good places to start.

Jesse Robison is a Pocatello native who has lived in Mexico and other places. He was educated at Idaho State University and University of Idaho.Robison works as a mediator and insurance law consultant, but his passion is public art. He has spearheaded numerous art improvements throughout Pocatello, including the Japanese garden located at Pocatello Regional Airport, and he serves on the Bistline Foundation. Robison currently resides in Pocatello.