President Obama and Macklemore took to the Internet last week to address the growing epidemic of opioid addiction in this country. It is an important message that they are sending and one indicative of the change in tone that needs to occur in the conversations taking place surrounding addiction in the country. Conversations that are necessary in order to help stem the tide of opioid-related deaths that have for too long plagued this nation’s landscape. As President Obama says early on in the video, drug overdoses now kill more people annually than traffic accidents and deaths from opioid overdoses have tripled since 2000. These figures are staggering and they beg the question, how did we get to this place? How have we as a country criminalized, marginalized, and stigmatized drug addicts to such an extent that in the current world that we live in, one where information is so readily available and help so plentiful, people are dying at such an increased rate? In order to uncover the roots of our current predicament, we have to go back to the 1980’s, for Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign and the burgeoning War on Drugs.

The Legacy of ‘Just Say No’ on the Current Opioid Epidemic

‘Just Say No’ was a simple mantra for a complex issue. It both started and ended the conversation about drug abuse with a resounding thud. Those three little words spoke volumes without saying anything because they operated from a place where all you had to do was say no. That was the extent of the conversation. Want to use drugs? No. Okay then. What if you could not say no, then what? Nancy didn’t have an answer for that because there was too be no discussion. Either say no and stand with us, or say yes and be ostracized as the other. This left no room for a conversation about the social effects of drug abuse, the public safety issues that would be resultant, or the fact that being a drug addict does not mean that you are a monster, but someone with an illness. No, once you said yes to the drugs you were the other and once you were a part of the other, then her husband, our 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs would take over and you would be arrested. This was the game plan, and what it has allowed for since it’s inception nearly 30 years ago, is the silencing and dehumanizing of drug addicts across this country, while simultaneously allowing the American Prison-Industrial Complex to grow to mythic proportions.

Annually the United States spends $80 billion dollars on incarcerated peoples while according to the U.S. Drug Control Budget for 2016 only $14.7 billion will be spent on education and treatment. This disparity in spending is not coincidental but is symptomatic of the lack of conversation regarding drug addiction in this country. While ‘Just Say No’ is no longer used as the rallying cry for “concerned citizens”, its implications have woven themselves into the fabric of our thoughts about drug addiction and our answer is lock ‘em up.

According to the Brookings Institute, roughly 17% of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in this country are imprisoned for drug-related offenses. This, however, does not take into account crimes where drugs were either a primary motivator or were the catalyst that lead to the lapse in judgment that caused the crime. 17% might not sound like a lot, but think of it this way, how would you feel if 17% of the prison population in this country were diabetic and only incarcerated because of their diabetes? I will admit, I have never known someone to rob a convenience store in order to get their glucose levels back to normal, but addiction is a medical condition, a mental illness, so is the correct response to lock people up? ‘Just Say No’ helped to create the conditions that allowed for these statistics to exist and in order to combat this, as Macklemore says, “We have to tell people who need help that it is okay to ask for it. We’ve got to make sure they know where to get it.” We need to follow the initiative that President Obama puts forth by, “working with law enforcement to help people get into treatment instead of jail” and most importantly we need to continue to talk as a nation.

Oxycontin and the Rise of Opioid Addiction

President Obama says during the video that a recent poll showed that 44% of Americans know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers. That means that 140 million people in this country have in some way been touched by opioid addiction. This number is staggering and may seem to come out of left field, but when taking into account that in 2012 alone, 259 million prescriptions were written in this country for opioids, it seems to make sense. A huge part of the rising epidemic of opioid abuse in this country is the direct result of the rise of prescription painkillers, or as President Obama succinctly puts it, “addiction doesn’t always start in some dark alley, it often starts in a medicine cabinet.” This is what we have been seeing in this country, and as Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ marginalized the illegal drug user, others found their gateway into addiction through legal means, means that seemed to be perfectly safe at first.

The active ingredient in Oxycontin, Oxycodone has been known to be addictive since the 1960s. Strict controls for the manufacturing and distribution of this drug were put in place and for years, these controls were seen as effective defense against its abuse. That all changed when Oxycontin was released to the market in 1995. It is not that the controls of scheduled prescription drugs loosened, in fact, they have actually gotten stricter since 1995, but the way that Oxycontin works allowed this drug to be abusable on a level possibly only matched by the Crack Epidemic of the 1980s. Oxycontin works on a time release and is stronger than Hydrocodone and other lesser derivatives of Oxycodone. Due to this time release and the higher amount of Oxycodone present, people started taking Oxycontin in ways other than directed, and even people who followed the directions were taking enormous amounts of a powerful opioid every day. Given this information, it is not surprising that President Obama said that since the year 2000 the amount of people who have overdosed on opioids have tripled.

Prescription drugs like Oxycontin have played a major role in the rising epidemic of opioid addiction in this country and the fact that we are now beginning to enter into a dialogue about what this means is promising for the future.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The first step toward combatting the opioid epidemic in this country has already been taken by President Obama and Macklemore. They got the “disease that we too often just whisper about—the disease of addiction” out of the dark and into the light of public discussion. This discussion alongside better access to treatment and education, stricter controls for prescription drugs, and a movement away from incarceration as rehabilitation are all substantial moves towards curbing the opioid epidemic in this country.

If you suffer from an opiate addiction, prescription or otherwise, and need to seek help, contact the professionals at Broadway Treatment Center today, at 714-443-8218. There is nothing to feel ashamed about. You are not alone in your struggle with opiates and you will not be alone in your recovery either. Call them today and make a start.