PRESCRIPTION DRUG ABUSE: A PROBLEM FOR EVERYONE
Wade Chandler, first year writing UNC Asheville student
As I walked through the Burton Street Community Garden a sharp orange sculpture was the first thing that really caught my eye. I made my way up to the sculpture that was laden with empty prescription medication bottles arranged around a small poem. The poem entitled “Mayberry Undercover” used characters from The Andy Griffith Show to paint a picture of how white drug companies have taken advantage of consumers. The poem suggests that white America was the origin and driving force behind prescription drug abuse. I am very familiar with The Andy Griffith Show, so the use of seemingly innocent characters hit hard and honestly made me a little uncomfortable. The poem goes on to describe how the epidemic has evolved into an all-encompassing issue and that society has not dealt with it fairly. I decided to focus my research project around the questions concerning the origins and scope of the prescription drug abuse epidemic. I’ve discovered that though prescription drug abuse began as a predominantly white middle class issue, it has morphed into a problem for all parts of society.
Prescription Drug Abuse Nationally
Researchers agree that the beginnings of prescription drug abuse are found in the white population. In Dr. Helena Hansen’s journal article “Is the Prescription Opioid Epidemic a White Problem?” she argues that US drug policies have served as a catalyst for the white middle class to get prescription drugs. Dr. Hansen cites the FDA’s approval of pain relievers, such as OxyContin in 1998, that were at the time thought to be minimally addictive but in retrospect caused individuals to become addicted (2016). As the government made drugs more accessible, their increased availability to the white middle class was undoubtedly the onset of their abuse.
Hansen also argues that “addiction neuroscience, biotechnology, federal regulation, and drug marketing each contributed to the representation of the opioid overdose epidemic as a White problem…” (2016). By this Hansen argues that science during the late 1990s was behind and did not know enough and also that US policies rarely placed prescription medication under scrutiny.
Until recent history our country has done little to manage the prescription of opioids and other addictive drugs. As those prescription habits have remained unchecked the issue of drug abuse has transitioned from a predominantly white problem to one that affects people of color as well. Data from the CDC shows that since 2011 there has been a sharp increase in the overdose death rates in black communities (Lopez, 2017). This sharp increase can be attributed to many things and there’s no single reason. One explanation for the increase in mortality rates is the sheer volume of prescription drugs in our society (Hansen, 2016). This increase can be viewed as a trickle-down affect where drugs become cheaper and more available to anyone who can afford them legally or illegally. Journalist German Lopez attributes the rise to increased contamination and decreased control of prescription drug companies (Lopez, 2017). Both of these causes go hand in hand and have allowed prescription drug abuse to evolve into a problem for everyone.
There is one major difference between prescription drug abuse and the war on illegal drugs: race. Race has been cited numerous times as the motivating factor behind the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs was never about therapy or reincorporation, it was about getting drug dealers and users off the streets of America. Drug laws were made differently for different people. For instance, if an immigrant were arrested for a drug charge, no matter the severity, they could be deported back to their home country while someone who was born in the US would serve their sentence in jail (Yates, 2005). The US has no clue how to react to the prescription drug epidemic mostly because of the people involved. Its teens, its elders, its lower class, its upper class, its black, its white. There is not a demographic that is unaffected. The government cannot incarcerate all of these people and it wouldn’t make sense to try to.
What the government has done to date is try to inform citizens about the risks involved with prescription drugs and they have created laws to criminalize those selling and in possession of illegal prescription drugs. Laws vary from state to state but in general most offenses in regard to prescription drugs are classified as misdemeanors meaning the perpetrator will have to pay a fine or serve less than a year in jail. North Carolina, like many other states, classifies the severity of their laws based on the risk of addiction in the drug (Clifford, 2018). While laws like these can help deter illegal trade of prescriptions it does nothing to affect legal usage and it undoubtedly targets poor individuals even though the issue encompasses all of society.
Prescription Drug Abuse Locally
Many people try to ignore drug abuse as a whole because of the negative stigmas surrounding it. When looking at local prescription drug abuse it is important to remain objective and to focus on treatment rather than criminalizing those who are struggling. Western North Carolina has recognized their issue of prescription drug abuse and targeted one of the most affected demographics: teens. Earlier this year Western Carolina University held a Student Opioid Summit with the purpose of getting teens who had first-hand experience with addiction into discussion on treatment and fixes. Citizen Times, a newspaper local to Asheville, reported various stories and provided solutions as to how to handle the growing epidemic. Various students shared their experiences with drug addiction and they learned valuable
lessons about how drugs can affect their bodies and their families. One student form Roberson High School stated that he “had heard enough times that our brains are still developing until we are 25, but to actually see visuals today and have conversations about what happens to our brains if we take these drugs was huge." (Bordas, 2018). Events like this show just how much local community can do to educate each other about drugs.
While WCU’s event was well attended and very successful, it limited the number and type of people who could take part in the conference. WNC Baptist Fellowship Church saw the same need to inform in their community and did so on a much more local level. They joined forces with other Buncombe county churches and held their own info session about the dangers of prescription drugs. They invited community leaders, police officers, School officials, and members of the Mountain Area Health Education Center to lead the discussion (Bordas, 2018). The unique thing about this particular meeting is the community involved. All of the churches involved had predominantly black congregations and they made sure that their youth were the main focus of the talks. Citizen Times also reported on this event sharing the main points and stories from the conference. Reverend Robbie Williams, one of the event organizers stated that the “big problem is privilege, because when drugs were affecting our black boys and girls they didn't get this type of attention, but we have come to a point that race is not playing as big of a role, because now I don't know of any families that this has not touched."(Bordas, 2018). Reverend Williams is telling his own motivation for attending the meeting: to help the young black community. He is also arguing that the issue is now all encompassing and needs to be focused on everyone involved.
The main topic of discussion in both of these opioid talks was the young population. That is rightly so as they are a very vulnerable age group. What do all of these kids have in common?
They go to school. I talked to Will Westbrock, one of my classmates, about his own experience in high school and middle school to delve into the local school systems. Will attended three different high schools in the Asheville area: T.C. Roberson, Ashville Christian, and Charles D. Owen High School. I asked him about his experiences learning about illegal drugs in comparison with prescription medications. Will told me that he had learned about street drugs through a unit in his freshman year health and fitness class and also through different movements in his school such as D.A.R.E. where he and other students pledged to be “drug free.” However, he told me that there were no such programs or classes that dealt with the dangers associated with prescription drugs (Westbrock, personal communication, November 8, 2018). Will’s experience with no prescription drug education in any of his high schools is alarming. Another reason I chose to interview Will was because of his own use of prescription drugs. Will does not use these drugs illegally and has a legitimate prescription, but he is still placed in the “at-risk” age demographic. Better education in high schools can undoubtedly help students understand what they’re putting into their bodies and what abuse looks like.
There is no easy answer to the opioid epidemic, America has turned its head from this issue for long enough and we cannot expect a quick fix or one perfect solution. The most important thing that we can do is try to affect people on a local level. Take example from WCU
and the WNC Baptist Fellowship Church. Help to educate and motivate people who you know and raise awareness for prescription drug abuse. This is a problem that is easily swept under the rug and needs to be brought out into the open but that cannot happen without widespread awareness.
In my opinion we need to start in schools. I think that effective teachings in schools can help limit the issues associate with prescription drugs going forward. Also, by targeting one of the most at-risk age demographics we can incite meaningful change and show these kids how important it is to stay away from these addicting drugs. I know firsthand how ineffective schools can be at exhibiting how real these issues are but like Will I don’t ever remember learning about prescription drugs, just illegal ones. We have to start raising more awareness in our society and schools are and awesome place to do just that.
It is most important to remember the scope of this issue. What started out as a white middle class issue now has an impact on every single part of our society. Right now, we view people who abuse prescription drugs differently based on their class and that has created and chiasm in our fight against this national issue. In order to solve the problems, we will need everyone to work together so that solutions can be effective in all parts of society. Like the Burton Street Community Peace Garden, we have to understand everyone who is affected and not neglect minority groups or the lower class. The Garden servers as a beacon of hope for everyone and every single person must work together to make prescription drug abuse a thing of the past.
Bordas, A. (2018, April 16). WNC students look for solution’s opioid epidemic at summit. Citizen times. Retrieved from https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2018/04/12/teens-mortified-learn-opioid-epidemic-attend-education-summit/511630002/
Bordas, A. (2018, April 18). As opioid death rates spike in minority communities, faith leaders issue call to action. Citizen Times. Retrieved from https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2018/04/18/opioid-death-rates-spike-minority-communities-faith-leaders-issue-call-action-asheville/524470002/
Clifford, N. (2018). Prescription Drug Crimes in NC. Clifford Law Group. Retrieved from https://www.thecliffordlawgroup.com/criminal-defense/drug-crimes/prescription-drug-crimes/
Hansen, H., & Netherland, J. (2016, December). Is the Prescription Opioid Epidemic a White Problem? American Journal of Public Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5105018/
Lopez, G. (2017, December 22). The Opioid Epidemic has Now Reached Black America. Vox. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/12/22/16808490/opioid-epidemic-black-white
Yates, Jeff, Chin, Jackson, G., Collins, & A., T. (2005, August 10). A War on Drugs or a War on Immigrants? Expanding the Definition of 'Drug Trafficking' in Determining Aggravated Felon Status for Non-Citizens. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=774866]