Nearing the Falls in America’s Drug Crisis

Never before in American history has our country faced a drug abuse, drug crime, and drug overdose crisis of the magnitude now confronting our society. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), announced that more than 50,000 Americans last year died from drug overdoses. That is a surge of death around us.

To be specific, we just saw an 11% jump, in one year, to 52,404 drug-related deaths. By comparison, 37,757 died in car crashes, an increase of 12%. Gun deaths, including homicides and suicides, totaled 36,252, a jump of 7%. Here is the kicker: law enforcement would confirm that many of car and gun deaths go right back to the drug crisis. What is becoming of us?

Reactions have been interesting, and somewhat revolting. Dismissive comments have ranged from indifference (“who cares?”) and blaming the enormous jump in drug-related deaths -- another during Obama’s tenure -- on the dead, most of whom are young -- to “must be criminals,” move along. The implication, of course, is that we need not care.  

Finally, some take the perverse position that we should shrug and concede. If legalization brings this pain, brace for ramped-up overdoses, drugged driving, domestic abuse, and drug-related crime. Or they indulge the parallel delusion -- these are “voluntary” deaths, just suicides and addicts indulging to death in “recreation.” What addled brain takes this low road?

These reactions, top to bottom, are horrific -- a dangerous variant of mob behavior and cognitive dissonance. Taken from a distance, having seen the tragic rise over the past eight years, a larger tragedy is afoot. What is that? Dulling public reaction to these mounting young deaths. If there are 50,000 dead young people -- starting with high-potency marijuana, ending dead on opiates, heroin, cocaine, and other synthetics -- there must be tens of millions of Americans content to ignore the tragedy at their doorstep.

Historical comparisons are difficult, but also foreboding. No society long endures knowing escalation of preventable, intentional death of innocents -- right in its midst. To be clear: If we look the other way, we are also complicit in the crime. Edmund Burke said it, and worth memorizing: All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing. What to do? Start caring, learning, understanding and speaking up -- against this accelerating tragedy.

There are those actually promoting this turn of events. They advance the escalation of drug-related deaths by billing smoked marijuana as “medicine” or “recreation” -- the line grows blurry. And the pernicious fiction that opiate, heroin, cocaine, and synthetic addictions are not being properly “managed.” And the grotesque fiction that addiction is harmless. Note: ask the family of any addict, or those hundred thousand parents who just lost a child last year, or the sister who lost her brother, teacher who lost another student. No, this is not a victimless crime.

How did we get here? How do we shake this growing seduction, societal indifference, heartlessness toward the young, disrespect for scientific facts and law -- where law embodies the society’s moral norms, public health, and public safety?

Can you not hear the distant sound of falls, hear the roar growing? In my youth, we spent time in the great outdoors, often in canoes, sometimes on rivers. The sound of waterfalls, which can come up fast, got quick respect. You got off the river. Reason was simple: If you ignore reality, comes a point of irreversibility, that fateful point of no return. Societies can also face such a point.

Today, as numbers go exponential in many drug categories, gangs and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) penetrate formerly safe cities along with rural America. Homicides track spreading DTOs, explaining spikes in heroin deaths and homicides in places like Chicago and Baltimore. Yet, still we look away. We refuse to hear the falls.

Some states, even in the last election, sold the idea that profiting from our collective moral indifference, from knowing encouragement of early death for children, irretrievable heartbreak of parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, and teachers, is or should be acceptable. It should not be. They imagine that tax dollars will offset the human pain of state-sponsored drug abuse, addiction, and death. They are wrong.

Crime is not made right by plebiscite. Nor by believing bad things will happen, but not to you -- so they should be allowed. Or that legal crime is just an experiment, reversible, like addiction -- only neither easily are. Or that addictive potency can be ignored -- imagining drugs are beer. Or that drugged driving is not so bad -- until the car opposite crosses into your lane. In a flash -- you are at the falls. Like the child who did not want to die, misled by public officials.

Be alert. The intertwined tragedy -- rising death numbers and public indifference -- are growing, not shrinking. A president who demoted his top official battling addiction and drug crime to sub-cabinet rank told us a lot. A president -- and members of Congress, and even governors -- who laughs at marijuana and cocaine use, tell us a lot. They do not know the families, clinics, ERs, trapped children, trapped adults, law enforcement and civilian funerals. They do not know what they are saying or doing to America.

Time now to reverse this public and official indifference, and reverse these fictions. Major categories of drug abuse have doubled or worse within the past ten years. This trajectory is not sustainable, and does not bring self-respect, peace, health, public safety, lawful behavior -- or restore the identity Americans should want. A new Congress and the Trump team have a chance to get out of this right -- get out of this current, avoid the falls, reverse the crisis. No one has to be brilliant. They just have to -- we just have to -- care. It is about time, isn’t it? Can you hear the falls?  

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement under George W. Bush, former Naval Intelligence Officer and litigator, who served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses. He wrote the book Narcotics and Terrorism, and writes widely on national security and law. 

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