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The war on drugs is still a losing fight

America’s longest war — neither Vietnam nor Afghanistan — shows no sign of even winding down, much less ending. To the contrary, the death toll may continue to increase.

Veterans of military service rightly point to the Vietnam and Afghan wars as the longest, in most respects, in U.S. history. The first American soldiers were killed in Vietnam in July 1959. The war ended in July 1975. Our troops went into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America, and some remain in that country.

But a bloodier war is being raged right now. U.S. military deaths during the Vietnam War totaled 58,200. In just one year (2017, the last one for which complete statistics are available), drug overdoses killed 70,237 Americans.

And the drug war began somewhere around 1995, according to one of the speakers at a wide-ranging health seminar sponsored by The Health Plan, here in Wheeling.

Robert M. Stutman, formerly a “high-profile” agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said it was in that year that “the culture changed in America, from street drugs to pharmaceuticals.” The latter category includes the opioid pain pills you’ve heard so much about.

Stutman has statistics to indicate the explosiveness of the change. In 1995, U.S. physicians prescribed about 9 million opioid pain killers. By 2015, the number was up to 260 million.

Also in 1995, many health care professionals added another “vital sign” to information they sought about patients. Formerly, there were four commonly checked vital signs: pulse rate, temperature, blood pressure and respiration. Then, pain — defined not by using scientific instruments but by asking patients — was added. And, Stutman adds, many health care companies, such as hospitals, rate their physicians’ effectiveness by asking patients how well they liked the care received, including whether they were offered anything for pain.

Stutman blames pharmaceutical companies, pushing for higher sales of opioids and misleading doctors, for the havoc.

It happened that just the day before hearing Stutman, I was talking with three of the five members of the West Virginia Supreme Court: Chief Justice Elizabeth Walker and Justices Tim Armstead and John Hutchison. They were in Wheeling for a judicial conference attended by many of the state’s circuit judges.

One reason such gatherings are useful is that circuit judges can exchange information about how they handle drug-related cases, including children removed from homes because their parents have become dangerous due to substance addiction. Sometimes, such parents get lawyers and go to court in attempts to get their children back. When they lose in circuit court, many appeal to the Supreme Court.

More than one-third of the cases handled by the state’s highest court last year were related to such abuse and neglect situations, the justices told me.

“It continues to grow,” Walker added. Five years ago, the court handled 184 such cases. Last year, it was 284.

So yes, it’s getting worse. We in West Virginia and Ohio, with the highest and second-highest drug overdose death rates in the nation, can see that with our own eyes.

Back to The Health Plan conference. Another speaker was Karl Rove, formerly chief of staff and senior adviser to President George W. Bush and a nationally recognized analyst on government and politics.

Commenting on the general ineffectiveness of the federal government, Rove added that he expects Congress will appropriate more money to fight drug abuse, specifically for treatment of addicts. “My suspicion is that something’s going to be done about the opioid crisis,” he said.

Let’s hope so. Washington devotes considerable resources to enforcing drug laws, but not enough to treatment. State efforts simply have not been enough.

At this point, the long war on drugs has been a losing battle.

Mike Myer can be reached a mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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