I was saddened but unsurprised to read results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The survey states that the rate of illegal drug use in the United States is currently at its highest level in nearly a decade. Last year, about 21.8 million Americans reported using illicit substances; marijuana use rose by 8 percent, Ecstasy use by 37 percent and methamphetamine use by an astonishing 60 percent.
Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, blames “eroding attitudes” about illicit drugs’ hazards. I agree—the nation is demonstrating an increasing ambivalence towards the dangers of substance abuse. For example, medical marijuana is legal in 14 states, yet the government has yet to establish a mechanism to qualify medical need. In addition – maybe as a result – SAMHSA found a decrease in the number of 12- to 17-year-olds who consider smoking marijuana once or twice a week “harmful.” In the battle against substance abuse, ambivalence can become our greatest enemy.
Calling marijuana “medicine” is, as Kerlikowske states, sending “the absolute wrong message to our young people.” But marijuana is merely one of many drugs being shrugged at by the nation’s general population. More and more people are circumventing legalities, crossing national borders, and shopping around pharmacy counters—all to gather the ingredients for their next high. What happened to that large-scale public safety campaign that warned young people against the dangers of Ecstasy use? “In the last few years,” Kerlikowske concedes, “I think we’ve taken our eye off the ball on Ecstasy.”
Clearly, it’s time for a new approach. What we are currently doing to stem illicit drug use is not working, and there are many steps we need to take in order to successfully address this ever-growing problem.
First, we need more funding for drug demand reduction. The primary approach of the “War on Drugs” has been supply reduction, and it’s time we stop condemning developing countries for the addictions of our own citizens. Instead of blaming Burma, Columbia and Mexico for drug production, we need to accept responsibility, take matters into our own hands, and put a stop to the United States’ status as a drug-consumer nation.
How do we turn the country’s drug consumption around? Through awareness, education and prevention. Through community-based collaborations and public education programs about the nature of addiction and its status as a chronic disease. We need to make it clear to today’s youth that illicit drugs are not something to shrug about—they are physically and socially dangerous substances that can lead to unintended consequences such as fatalities from driving under the influence, acute medical problems, and a lifetime of addiction.
Most importantly, the government and the treatment field need to work together to increase the availability of treatment. This includes treatment as an alternative to incarceration, which means fewer people serving time and more people getting help. It also includes reaching the 90% of drug users who are not currently seeking treatment—so-called “recreational users” who have a problem, but who are not yet acutely ill. The goal with addiction, like with cancer, is prevention, early detection and intervention. Awareness, treatment accessibility, and partnerships between treatment centers and government / community organizations help to catch the problem before it becomes a full-force substance abuse disorder—nipping the addiction in the bud.
This recent SAMHSA report should serve as a wake-up call to the nation: yes, substance abuse is a major widespread issue in this country, and yes, things are getting worse. Complacency is no longer an option—we need to change the status quo, and there is no better time than the present.
Howard P. Meitiner
President and CEO, Phoenix House