Addiction is a Symptom of a Failing Society
Now in my early 30s, I have lost at least dozen friends to opioid overdose. The opioid epidemic is one that I have become deeply, tragically familiar with. Of my friends I’ve lost to overdoses, most of them barely lived to see their 30th birthdays. These are just the people I considered my personal friends. If I include acquaintances or friends of friends, that list gets much longer.
Most people my age have not lost as many people as myself or those in my community. Through all these tragedies, I have learned many lessons about addiction. I have gained a unique perspective on causes of addiction – what helps and what doesn’t. While it is a complex issue to which there is no one simple answer, there are some things I am certain of. That if certain changes were made, my list of friends gone wouldn’t be as long.
A necessary step in combatting this crisis is providing adequate health care for all. When I think about laws that can be enacted to prevent over-prescription of addictive, deadly drugs such as opioids, I don’t see doctors as the absolute source of the problem. While yes, over-prescribing is a big issue that should be addressed, the bigger problem is our country’s grossly inadequate health care system. Millions of Americans don’t have access to health care i. Many people can’t afford to see a doctor, or only go if a health issue becomes severely debilitating or life-threatening. For many people, it is then that addictive and deadly opioids are prescribed, and the seeds of addiction are sown. For many health issues, though of course not all, this would be entirely preventable if the law ensured preventative health care for all. This way, many issues could be avoided so pain-killers wouldn’t be prescribed in the first place.
What do drug addiction and the federal minimum wage have to do with one another? Of the dozen or so young people I have known who died of overdose, one thing they all had in common is the struggle to make basic ends meet. Keeping a roof over their heads, or keeping a phone bill paid was a constant struggle. A car breaking down was a devastating financial blow. It often meant no more car, no more job, and no more home. When people are not able to have even their most basic needs met, getting high is sometimes the only repose from a life of struggle.
The federal minimum wage has not gone up in 11 years, yet the cost of everything else has. That’s the longest period in history that we’ve gone without a minimum wage increaseii. If making a living wage didn’t seem so impossible for so many people, addiction would not be such an easy trap to fall into. We need our government to ensure that minimum wage laws reflect a livable wage.
Of the dozens of people I have known that have died from opioid overdose, there are dozens more whose lives were saved by a drug called Naloxone (brand name Narcan), and the harm reduction organizations that distribute it.
Across the country, harm reduction organizations are doing the work that our governments have failed to do. Rather than attempting to eliminate drugs from society entirely – a futile endeavor – they seek to reduce the harm and deaths caused by drug use. They seek to use public resources for rehabilitation treatment rather than criminalization, and promote a culture of compassion rather than shame and stigma against drug users. A huge contribution they make is providing Narcan, and training on how to use it, available to the public. Narcan reverses opioid overdose and saves lives. The National Harm Reduction Coalition iii connects people with local programs that offer these services. Anyone seeking to end the opioid crisis should invest in, volunteer with, or start a local harm reduction organization.
Recovering from the opioid epidemic will require a multi-step, multi-faceted approach. The current structures of our society are no doubt contributing to the problem, and cannot continue as they are if we want to see any change. The war on drugs has been a failure. Rather than using our resources to put people in prisons, we should use them to provide health care, means to make a comfortable living, and harm reduction organizations that save lives. Addiction is a symptom of a failing society, not the individual. I don’t believe we can ever fully eliminate addiction and overdoses, but mass change is possible. We can’t go on the way have been and expect things to change.