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Hitting home / May 15, 2019
It’s been awhile since The Sun published a story that tapped the public mood quite like reporter Susan Kyte’s piece on our front page last week, “Help Me Save Her.” The story explored the struggles of a Chase City mother as her daughter has descended into the hell of drug addiction. Reporting like this hits home for a reason — because so many of us have seen family members, friends, co-workers and associates lose just about everything important in their lives due to substance abuse. Once people start down that path, turning them around can sometimes seem all but impossible.

Our article was drawn from the experience of Sandra McCall, whose daughter, Delilah, is in jail awaiting a judge’s sentence on a charge of narcotics possession. The day after publication, I received an email from a reader who wrote this: “Not only a heart breaking human interest story, but also a valuable community service post. I hope their story helps others and that Delilah gets the help she so desperately needs. This is one of the things your paper does best. I can say now that the entire community stands behind the McCalls and others like them.”

I think this last sentence gets it exactly right — attitudes about drug abuse have changed, and the public has come to broadly understand that a strictly punitive approach to illegal drug use is counterproductive. Of course, the irony is that it took a drug menace based on legal pharmaceuticals — opioids — to encourage a more enlightened point of view on how we should go about combating substance abuse. Treating drug addiction as a public health problem, rather simply as a criminal justice issue, is something that should have been done long ago.

If you haven’t done so already, please do yourself a favor and read Susan’s story. There was only one part of Sandra McCall’s story that, for me, struck a somewhat discordant note. Here’s the passage:

McCall says she feels that too much time and attention is spent on “finding someone to blame” for the addiction crisis and not enough on treatment. She points to ongoing news reports of lawsuits against drug manufacturers and the families who own those companies as proof. “I live in the real world. I want solutions to problems, not lawsuits,” she says.

One day after The Sun published the story, a news release popped up via email from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Roanoke, announcing the conviction of a Martinsville doctor, Joel Smithers, on 861 federal counts of drug distribution. In one instance, Smithers’ abuses led to the death of a West Virginian woman who was overprescribed oxycodone and oxymorphine. “This defendant not only violated his Hippocratic Oath to his patients, but he perpetuated, on a massive scale, the vicious cycle of addiction, despair, and destruction,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen at the conclusion of a nine-day trial in federal court in Abingdon. “We have no higher priority than investigating drug-dealing physicians and other corrupt health-care practitioners and putting them in federal prison.”

It’s understandable, even admirable in a way, that people don’t want to expend the country’s energies — in either criminal or civil proceedings — going after doctors, drugmakers and others who have contributed to the spread of opioids, when the immediate task at hand is finding help for their loved ones. But an effective response to this crisis demands doing both at once. There’s all kinds of stuff in the news that I find unbelievable nowadays, but even I did a double-take after reading a recent blogpost by Kevin Drum, a sharp observer of politics and economics who writes for Mother Jones. Drum picked up on the news of a research study by Molly Schnell, with the Princeton University Department of Economics, that “should shock even those of us who consider ourselves stone cynics.” Drum then quotes a passage from another writer, Alex Tabarrok, who had a similar reaction:

In 2010, Purdue Pharmaceutical introduced a new version of OxyContin that was more difficult to be abused. Doctors who worry about balancing genuine pain management against the possibility of abuse would be happy about this. Their prescriptions of OxyContin would likely go up. Conversely, doctors who are basically pill mills would be unhappy. They’d most likely switch to other opioids.

Long story short, Molly Schnell analyzed the prescribing behavior of 100,000 physicians and found that:

• 40 percent acted like good doctors.

• 30 percent acted like pill pushers.

(The other 30 percent were somewhere in-between.)

Are you shocked? If not, you really need to work on your cynicism.

Oh, and one more thing: the percentage of pill pushers varies by area. And areas with higher percentages also record higher rates of death from drug abuse.

Unbelievable. I’m speechless because I can’t think of a reaction fit for a family-ish publication.

Agreed and amen to everything said above. This is why it’s important to wage lawsuits and even file criminal charges against people who acted to perpetuate a drug problem that has now blown up into a full-scale crisis. Aside from the fact pharmaceutical companies have made billions of dollars off pill-peddling — money that could be put to good use fighting addiction through treatment — no individual, and no corporation, should be allowed to escape responsibility for egregious behavior such as that which is described in the Princeton economics research paper cited above. It’s absolutely the right thing to do to punish those who knew better, and should have acted accordingly.

The victims of drug abuse? Not so much.

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