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Drug War Is Far From Won

Gov. Jim Justice missed the mark a bit in reacting to some good news recently. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources announced the total number of drug overdose deaths in the state decreased from 2017 to 2018. Estimates show 952 drug overdose deaths in 2018, compared with 1,017 in 2017.

That is, indeed, a small bit of good news, but it is not the whole story.

Justice said it is “incredibly heartening to see that we are finally starting to make some incredible strides in our fight against the terrible drug crisis that continues to hurt the people of our state and the entire nation.”

What the governor views as “incredible strides” may actually be a change in drug-users’ behavior that leaves us no less in the grip of a ruthless substance abuse epidemic. Indeed, fewer people are dying from opioid overdoses — 6.4% fewer, in fact.

But 40% more are perishing from methamphetamine overdoses. This is no longer an opioid crisis — it hasn’t been for a couple of years now. It is a substance abuse crisis.

Yes, the folks in Charleston may be able to take some credit for fewer deaths. Laws have changed, naloxone is more readily available, there are more beds in treatment and recovery facilities. Law enforcement, too, is making strides in getting drugs and their dealers off the streets.

As Dr. Robin Pollini, a substance abuse and infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor in West Virginia University’s School of Public Health, told The Bluefield Daily Telegraph, the number of drug deaths reported in 2016 was 890 — significantly lower than the 2018 figure.

“For all the effort we’ve put in in the past two years, are we happy we’re back at the same number we were two years ago, or do we want better,” she asked.

The deaths of “only” 952 people are no reason for celebration.

Recognition of progress is one thing, but let’s hold off on patting ourselves on the back until the trend is sustainably and significantly reversed.


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