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Editorial: Ending the opioid crisis is a battle with many fronts

The metro area got some welcome news when a task force reported that opioid-related deaths so far this year are running well below the tragic levels last year, when 23 lives ended from an overdose. So far this year, eight deaths have been attributed to opioids. Nobody is proclaiming any kind of victory, especially the members of the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Addiction, which compiled the figures and was empaneled to address the opioid epidemic.

Opioid abuse, which has exploded throughout the country in recent years, is appropriately a major focus of concern among public health officials, law enforcement officials, addiction counselors and others. The preventable deaths took young people in the prime of their lives, leaving a void for their friends and families and depriving the community of their potential contributions.

But the mayor's group reminds us that the human toll from addiction and drug abuse remains much broader and more ingrained in our culture than opioids. In Cass County, 63 deaths last year were attributed to alcohol-related causes, nearly triple the number of lives lost to opioid overdose. Courtrooms, jails, emergency rooms and detoxification centers are full of people who have lost control of their lives from alcohol abuse, which still is tolerated too much by a culture that is awash in booze.

In one important way, the opioid crisis is distinct from other forms of drug abuse. Many addicts started on prescription painkillers; because of cost and access, some of those addicts over time turn to street sources. We now know that drug manufacturers misrepresented the addictive power of these drugs and aggressively marketed them to physicians, who for years were too indiscriminate in prescribing the drugs.

Undoubtedly, one reason for the drop in opioid deaths is the now-wide distribution of life-saving antidote kits, carried by paramedics, firefighters, and law enforcement officers and stocked in many schools. But that is a figurative Band-Aid. To confront opioid and other addictions, the commission is recommending a wide range of steps on multiple fronts—a necessary approach, given the complexity and difficulty of the problem. A primary prevention strategy aims to boost "social capital"—providing a network and supportive community to offer awareness and education as well as building skills to make it less likely they'll use drugs and alcohol. The group also will work to remove barriers to treatment, to reduce substance use during pregnancy and to engage faith communities and workplace wellness programs.

If sustained over time, those and other efforts will help. But ultimately, this is a battle that is waged by individuals. People are responsible for their behavior. As individuals and as a society we need to ask ourselves, why are our lives so terrible that we need to numb ourselves with drugs and alcohol?

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.

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