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Drug Addiction: Part of History for Decades; Current Trend Calls for More Treatment, Less Jail Time

WHEELING — Whether it’s a study of history or criminal justice, two local college professors have input on the reasons behind the growing heroin epidemic locally and across the country.

Daniel Weimer, Ph.D., teaches a variety of courses on American and international history at Wheeling Jesuit University. Among his classes are The World on Drugs: 1700 to the Present.

By studying the drug epidemics and cultures down through time, Weimer offers insight into history repeating itself and what is different and new about today’s heroin and opiate crisis.

“If you look at history across the world, across time, you will see that drug addiction has been a chronic social problem. It can be better or worse managed, but it’s always going to be there,” Weimer observed.

Weimer said there was an uptick in narcotic addiction, mostly related to medicines that were not regulated closely, at the turn of the 20th century. He said many people took medicines without knowing their addictive power and thus became hooked.

He points to several waves of heroin use and popularity through the decades. However the circumstances of each decade differed. Weimer said there has always been some type of cultural movement with previous heroin use, however that does not seem to be the case today.

“In the mid-’50s it was the bebop jazz scene. In the late ’60s and ’70s, it was the fringe culture that made it sheik. During the late ’70s and ’80s it was the punk scene, and in the ’90s it was the grunge scene. There was an aspirational aspect to use over those years. I don’t see that here this time. I don’t see one identifiable popular cultural use connected to it now.”

Weimer noted that in more recent years, a crackdown on the pill mills forced people to turn to heroin, the cheaper and more readily available substance. Another subtle difference today is overdose deaths from heroin occur in greater numbers because drug dealers are cutting the heroin with other synthetic drugs and the heroin is much more potent, he said.

“That makes the risk of overdose for first time users and experienced users even higher. In the past, somebody tried it, had a bad experience and moved on. Now there is greater risk of overdose and dying because of the adulteration of synthetic opiates such as fentanyl and carfentanil.”

Weimer said the Nixon years in the White House brought forth the “War on Drugs.” Time has shown that “a purely punitive, law enforcement approach has not produced results.” However the fact that police are among first responders carrying life-saving Narcan in their cruisers points to a willingness toward a public health approach.

He also suggests West Virginia’s low economic ranking has contributed to the state’s drug crisis. “The unemployed, less educated, less skilled are much more susceptible to feeling the effects of addiction and “that’s harder for government authorities to deal with.”

“We can’t arrest our way out of this situation. Now we are seeing other things we can do. Treatment is not a silver bullet. We need a variety of treatment options and maintenance … It’s just like roads and bridges, there has to be some sort of public infrastructure,” Weimer added.

He said the cost factor is overwhelming a state with only 28 beds available for in-patient addiction programs.

“The hardest nuts to crack, the most complex things, the most long-term things are what are the factors that promote drug abuse. … Education, employment opportunities, along with counseling and treatment — that’s addressing the social factors that promote abuse,” Weimer concluded.

Lawrence N. Driscoll, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice at WJU, said admitting there is a problem with drug addiction is the first step toward reckoning a bad situation. He places much of the current addiction blame on an advertising push on the part of drug companies that failed to alert patients and physicians to the addictive nature of certain pain medications.

The drugs were heavily prescribed in recent decades and have prompted users to seek out a more feasible option — heroin.

“Unless you are involved like first responders or with someone in the family, you don’t realize the depth or destruction,” Driscoll said.

An Army veteran of the Vietnam War, Driscoll said he knows about addictions. When he got out of the service, he was smoking five packs of cigarettes a day.

While he believes his ability to quit cold turkey was mind over matter, he does not believe heroin addicts have the same ability to give up their drugs.

He also admits to still craving a cigarette from time to time, but he resists the urge.

“Once an addict, always an addict. I think the difference is that they (heroin addicts) really don’t have control. The addiction is forever. They want to get high. They don’t want to be healthy,” Driscoll said.

He said a lot of well-meaning people end up enabling an addict because they don’t really know what to do. Getting an addict clean and then keeping them away from the people they used to associate with are the first steps to success.

“When you have a wound you have to get in and clean it out, but we continue to put a patch over it and it gets infected. It gets worse and this is, I think, where we’re at with the drug problem,” Driscoll commented.

Driscoll is familiar with the drug issues as he has witnessed friends whose children have become involved in drug addiction. One child lost his life to drugs while another continues to battle addiction at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars provided by a well-meaning parent.

“It’s the first time I realized the family has to make a choice, too. Families will enable. That’s absolutely part of the problem,” he said.

“It’s not the source of the drugs, we know they are out there. It’s finding what the source of the addiction … just how this whole thing got started” with each person.

Driscoll laments the effects of parental addiction on children, such as missed classroom time and no at-home supervision. The whole family suffers, he said.

“I think we continue to seek solutions that we’ve done in the past. There needs to be a connection between law enforcement and treatment. There’s no middle ground,” he added.

Driscoll offered high praise for Jim Lee for his adult treatment court/mental health court he establised in the Northern Panhandle in October 2003.

It provides drug abusers an alternative to prison time and a chance to mend their lives.

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