Opioid addiction is a national epidemic, but its toll is actually exacted at the local and family level. Just ask Oregonians who live in a state ranked with the sixth worst drug problem in the nation.
If you want to see the opioid epidemic up close, you don’t have to book a flight to Appalachia. Oregon ranks fourth for teenage drug abusers. And, Oregon ranks first, according to federal data, for older adults hospitalized for opioid-related issues.
"We have a massive problem," Mark Kruger, a 23-year veteran who is now a captain with the Portland Police Bureau’s drugs and vice division, told KATU-TV. "We're seizing larger quantities of methamphetamine and heroin and cocaine in Portland than we have historically ever seized."
Now there is a new threat from street fentanyl, which is an opiate on steroids, available online and often a one-way ticket to the morgue. "Children now can buy fentanyl on the dark web using bitcoins for currency and they can overdose in their own bedrooms on a substance that no one really knew about a couple of years ago," Kruger said.
This is shocking news for many Oregonians who imagine they live far from the madding crowd. Like many other American communities, we live in ground zero of a drug epidemic.
That reality is painful for Oregonians who were blazing a trail through a pair of ballot measures in the 1990s that weighed “death with dignity” measures with the shortcomings of pain management. Medical practitioners admitted they were negligent in recognizing the pain endured by terminally ill patients. Doctors kept their word and found ways to curb pain, not just for the terminally ill, but also for those suffering from numbing chronic pain.
But it wasn’t enough. In 1998, Oregonians voted to allow the use of doctor-recommended medical marijuana, ostensibly for pain related to cancer treatment, but often for men and women suffering from work-related back pain. Twenty years later, Oregonians are still auditioning painkillers, from heroin to a synthetic version of anesthesia.
A common temptation is to hang the drug dealer from the highest tree. However, that overlooks the demand side of the equation. Many people hooked on opioids and other painkillers aren’t looking for a thrill; they are trying to find a way to get through the day without debilitating pain.
Like a lot of complex problems without simple solutions, drug addiction has many contributors. There are the thrill-seekers. There are people who think life is better when they are high. But there are a whole lot of people who just want to get through an afternoon without excruciating pain.
Prescription drugs are in the cross-hairs of lots of politicians because of high prices and increasing levels of addiction. The coziness between doctors and drug companies has come under scrutiny. So has over-prescribing of painkillers and flimsy rationale for medical marijuana cards. Recreational use of drugs has blurred with medical use. The financial opportunities for legal and illegal distribution of drugs makes the mix even more lethal.
The proximity of the opioid problem to Oregon communities should provoke empathy and kindle an instinct for nuanced responses. People who get hooked on drugs for fun is one problem. People who get hooked on drugs to dull pain is another. Both require human responses, not criminal indictments. A nuanced response may require people to accept approaches and practices they otherwise would reject out of hand.
Hopefully as a civilization we have advanced beyond dealing with contagion by burning the bodies. The men, women and children afflicted by drug addiction deserve something better. They deserve policies that strike at the root of addiction, not the symptoms.
Statistics can be barren and devoid of sympathy. But statistics also arouse human instincts that people are in pain. We need to find a way to ease that pain without addiction. It is an assignment Oregonians have debated for decades, and now it’s time to do the homework and hand in a winning essay.
Dale Penn II is a partner and leader of the CFM’s state affairs team. He has been deeply involved in government relations and regulatory affairs in Oregon for more than 12 years and was active on behalf of a range of clients in the 2018 Oregon legislative session.