Sunday, March 20, 2011

Misplaced Drug Hysteria

Oxycontin to Be Snorted (Wikicommons)
The SF Chron ran an article Friday on UC Berkeley’s continuing problems with drug abuse at their co-ops. As a result of a series of overdoses and accusations of drug dealing, the University has implemented a Good Samaritan law that would allow students to call the authorities in the event of a drug overdose without risk of arrest (assuming they, too, were high or complicit). Many parents and neighbors are crying that this is insufficient, that the co-ops are out of control.

I attended UC Berkeley in the mid-1980s. The co-ops had a bad drug reputation then, like now. However, I lived in the dorms, where drug abuse was also a problem. During my first week, a young man overdosed twice, each time consuming a smorgasbord of hallucinogens, narcotics, sedatives and alcohol, ostensibly purchased from various sources living in the dorms, as well as the co-ops and People’s Park. Another person in my dorm became paralyzed after consuming a handful of valium and crashing his car. There was one young man known as Robo Rob, who had a pyramid of empty Robitussin bottles on his desk and another known as Pill Head Craig (for obvious reasons). And then there were the basketball players, two giants who routinely spent weekend mornings covering our communal bathroom floor with the remains of their evening’s celebrations.

Moms, Dads, Just Say No to Drugs
The point is that the co-ops are not to blame for drug abuse by young adults living away from their parents for the first time. It is not even the living away from the parents (the majority of students I knew did not even smoke pot, and many didn’t touch alcohol). In fact, young adults do not even make up a significant percentage of drug overdoses in the U.S. According to Mike Males, the greatest increase in drug overdoses over the past two decades has been Americans in their 40s and 50s, while teen and young adult drug use and overdose rates are at their lowest rates in 30 years.

While it is tragic to lose a child to drugs, our collective obsession with sheltering and securing children has blinded us to the true nature of America’s drug problem. According to Phillip Smith ( drug death rates today are more than double what they were during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in the early 1990s and 4-5 times the peak heroin mortality rate in 1975. But it is not teenagers or college students who are filling the hospital rooms. It is baby boomers killing themselves with prescription drugs like oxycontin. According to Males, the average age of a person dying from a drug overdose is now 43, up from 32, in 1985, and 22, in 1970. Males also notes that number of 35-54 year-old binge drinkers (those consuming 5 or more drink in an evening) is double the number of teen and college-age binge drinkers combined.

Drug education and Good Samaritan laws for college students are certainly prudent policies. However, by ignoring their parents, both those who abuse drugs themselves, and those who are in denial about their partners’ and children’s problems, we are overlooking a far more pervasive and deadly problem.

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