The opioid epidemic - time to try something else

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Vermonters were horrified to learn about the deaths of two people in Townshend, apparently shot to death after a drug-fueled party in Bellows Falls.

The details of the deaths of Steven Lovely, 43, and Amanda Sanderson, 35, are horrific, but as we have known for a long time, much of the crime in our idyllic state, whether it be violent or nonviolent, is a result of drug use (licit and illicit, we might add) or drug addiction.

Law enforcement agencies around the state and the nation are struggling to keep heroin, fentanyl, and prescription pain killers out of the veins of Americans and they are, through no lack of effort, failing.

Last year, more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses related to opioids and that number continues to rise. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. To put that into perspective, drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined and more people than HIV/AIDS killed during its peak in 1995.

And the number of addicted Americans continues to rise. It's the only aspect of American health that is getting significantly worse, Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Upshot. More than two million Americans are estimated to be dependent on opioids, and an additional 95 million used prescription painkillers in the past year — more than used tobacco.

With the increase in the use of opioids comes a commensurate increase in crimes, most of it petty such as the theft of property and cash to fuel an addiction.

Trooper Brian Berry, a detective with the Vermont State Police, recently told the Reformer that many of the burglaries his agency has investigated over the past few years are drug related, "in one way, shape or form. They are taking property and trading it for drugs or trying to sell them and use the money to buy drugs. There always seems to be drugs at the end of the road."

Berry told the Reformer that the opioid crisis has affected many aspects of law enforcement, but it's hard to say whether it has increased the workload of detectives working on property crimes. "The crimes do correlate in a large part with the heroin epidemic."

Needless to say, most of the drug-related crime in Windham County and Vermont is nonviolent, but that in no way lends comfort to two families now grieving the deaths of their loved ones.

And even if we can agree that drugs make people do things they wouldn't normally do if they were sober, no one deserves to die, whether due to an overdose or at the hands of another human being. By the same token, just because you're high and paranoid, or need to get a fix, there is no excuse for committing a crime, especially one that results in death. We expect the judicial system to mete out justice that is fair and compassionate but also holds people responsible for their actions.

It is incumbent upon all of us to not grow callous to the scourge plaguing our communities or seek out simplistic solutions that don't address the core problems of opioid abuse. It's been well-documented that much of the abuse was due to a record number of pain killer prescriptions in an attempt to treat patients' pain conditions. "Then, people hooked on painkillers began to move over to heroin as they or their sources of drugs lost their prescriptions," wrote German Lopez and Sarah Frostenson for Vox. "The result is a deadly epidemic that so far shows no signs of slowing down."

A lot of fingers have been pointed at the drug manufacturers, who pushed doctors to prescribe opioids and reaped a financial bonanza in return. Now, many drug makers are dealing with the legal ramifications of their marketing pushes, but that doesn't solve the problem.

And neither will a wall on our southern border or building more prisons. We should have learned by now that the war on drugs has been an abysmal failure. Nonetheless, the current administration appears to be on a path to doubling down on that failure with no real plan in place to deal with the reasons why people are addicted to pain killers or for getting them off pain killers. While the administration has signaled it is preparing to crack down on medicinal and recreational marijuana, new studies are concluding that legal marijuana can actually help reduce opioid dependence and abuse.

"Observational studies have found that state legalization of cannabis is associated with a decrease in opioid addiction and opioid-related overdose deaths," wrote Esther Choo, Sarah Feldstein and Travis Lovejoy in a paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Nothing can bring back Lovely and Sanderson and the thousands of Americans who have died because of the opioid epidemic, but there are ways we can reduce the damage going forward. It requires patience, courage and a willingness to try something different when all else fails. It's the least we can do for the families that are reeling from the deaths of their loved ones.

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