Drug Crisis: Justice too quick to claim progress

Gov. Jim Justice missed the mark just a bit in reacting to some good news last week. 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. Investigators were able to confirm 25 fewer people died from drug overdoses in 2018 than in the previous year.

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. Sure, fewer people are dying from opioid overdoses — 17 percent fewer, in fact.

But an astounding 40 percent MORE are dying from methamphetamine overdoses. This is no longer an opioid crisis — hasn’t been for a couple of years now. It is a substance abuse crisis. It is a human crisis. Individuals and their families are still struggling. And, hundreds of people — still nearly 1,000 — are dying each year.

Yes, the folks in Charleston might 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. But Justice must not mistake fewer deaths for fewer drug users. That is simply not happening.

As Dr. Robin Pollini, a substance abuse and infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor in WVU’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.

“So we’re back to where we were two years ago,” she said. “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?”

West Virginia will not truly find its way out of this plague until a dramatic economic and cultural shift brings people a measure of hope and security. In too many ways, the discussion about the causes of this epidemic still includes phrases like “that’s just the way it is,” and “that’s how it has always been.” We have got to move past feeling celebratory about the deaths of “only” 952 people.

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.