Leadership on Opioids

Anyone who proposes an easy solution to the overdose epidemic is either a simpleton or a politician.  But far too many people entrusted with the power and responsibility to set priorities decry the number of overdose deaths, then stigmatize and demonize every effort to save lives.   “Suboxone can be diverted.”   “Someone might drive impaired after methadone.”  “Needle exchange programs attract drug dealers.”    Meanwhile the number of deaths from overdose make clear that current solutions are not working.  Small community newspapers have story after story about the increasing number of deaths, but the silence in Washington is deafening.    I picture a cruise ship leaving  one after another drowning passenger in it’s wake, while the ship’s captain dines at the captain’s table, pausing between bites to tell dinner guests that all is well.

Statistics and numbers don’t tell a story unless put into context, so some simple comparisons help demonstrate the magnitude of the ‘opioid problem.’  My perception is skewed after sitting with so many people affected by addiction, but we seem to have a huge blind spot for one of the leading killers of young people.  Consider the issues our country’s leaders talk about and our news reporters write about.   I think we all know the things that get our President’s undies in a bundle… but did I miss the Presidential Summit on Opioid Dependence?  This would not be the first time that our leaders missed the elephant in the living room, of course— but it may be one of the first times a President has been given a pass after missing this big an elephant for this long.  I’m old enough to remember the media soundly criticizing Reagan for failing to create a sense of urgency over AIDS.  And so I wonder… When is Obama going to express urgency about opioids?  Where is the media criticism of his lack of urgency?   Today he told reporters he ‘will leave everything on the field during his last year in office,’ just before he took off for another Christmas in Hawaii.  Will that time on the field include some concern for people killed by overdose?

I don’t get the impression that our President lies awake all night worrying about overdose deaths.  But maybe he should.  We heard a great deal from Obama about the need to bring troops home from Iraq a few years ago.  And all of the networks kept a running tally of US deaths in Iraq in the lower right corner of the screen during the evening news.   So let’s compare priorities.  Let’s add up all of the deaths of US troops during Iraq II during two administrations of Bush and the 1 and 3/4 Obama administrations.  Let’s add the deaths from the World Trade Center attacks, the recent terrorist attacks in France and California, and the mass shootings at Sandy Hook and Columbine.  How does that number compare to the impact of opioid dependence?

I don’t intend to lessen the honor of fallen military servicemen and women, or downplay the horror experienced by victims of 911 and other violent attacks.   I chose these numbers because the horror of each situation prompted speeches by our leaders, rallies by our citizens, and headlines in National news media.   The speeches and commitments of our President and the coverage by news anchors are supposed to be a reflection of what our citizens care about.

The number of deaths from overdose in 2013 alone– one year– was over four times greater than the complete count of US deaths in Iraq, plus all of the horrible events listed above.   US deaths in the Iraq war?  About 4500.  The Trade Center attacks killed almost 3000 people.   In 2013, over 30,000 US citizens died from overdose.  Surprised?  I was.  On average about 100 people in the US die from overdose every day– day after day.

As I wrote above, I remember the reporters calling out Reagan over AIDS.  Activists claimed that Reagan avoided talking about HIV because of the stigma associated with ‘homosexuals’, the people hit the hardest by the initial outbreak of HIV.   They say that the people who died were ‘second class citizens’ who didn’t have a voice, and it was easier for Reagan to pretend that the problem didn’t exist.  Many people believe that if Reagan spoke about AIDS in his speeches or directed National attention toward the outbreak of the virus, that fewer people would have died.   Maybe those people were right.

If they were, what’s Obama’s excuse?