By David Trone
In the final days of 2016, a North Carolina halfway house called to say my nephew was missing. It wasn’t the first call I’d gotten about Ian. He was like our fifth child and the focus of my attention for many years. We were in touch regularly, and he went with us on vacations and to ballgames.
Ian was a drug addict. We made sure he had access to the best doctors, residential and out-patient recovery programs, counselors and halfway houses. We worked with lawyers and parole officers to deal with his legal problems. We arranged for him to live at the halfway house and work in Asheville, N.C., because one of our daughters lives there.
We did everything we knew to do — and everything experts told us to do — but it wasn’t enough. After several days of searching, Ian was found in a hotel room. He was alone, dead from an opioid overdose.
My story is not unusual. In 2015, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control has issued official data, 52,404 Americans died from drug overdoses, an all-time high. A recent CDC study suggests official statistics underestimate the number of opioid-related fatalities.
Overdose deaths now outnumber deaths from auto accidents and guns. Only heart disease, stroke and cancer account for more deaths. Eight of every 10 drug-related deaths are due to opioids. The opioid category includes heroin and synthetic fentanyl — a combination of which killed Ian — but also legal pain medications. In fact, prescription drugs now account for more deaths than illicit ones.
As a recent story in The Baltimore Sun detailed, the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic is hitting Maryland as well: 2,089 Maryland overdose deaths in 2016, a 66 percent increase from the year before. Overdose deaths have increased for six straight years, and have increased 300 percent since 2010.
Opioids account for an average of four deaths per day in the state. This scourge spares no one. In Montgomery County, the wealthiest county in Maryland, opioid-related deaths in 2016 were 40 percent higher than the year before.
Government at all levels is struggling to react as elected officials in both parties are coming to understand that addiction should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal issue. Restrictions have been placed on prescriptions for opioid-based pain killers. Naloxone, a lifesaving drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, has been made more widely available for use by first responders. Funds for public education and treatment have been increased.
Shortly before Ian’s disappearance, I was shocked to learn that most hospitals will not admit patients who merely want to detox. To fill the gap, many locales are creating detox centers where addicts can detox without fear of arrest and can be referred to professional services.
Unfortunately, these useful steps to eradicate this epidemic are colliding with politics, particularly in the Trump administration. Their budget proposal would cut 95 percent of the funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the office empowered to tackle the opioid crisis. Their health care plan would eliminate Obamacare’s requirement for including treatment in basic policies.
Reversing President Obama’s enforcement policies, as the administration proposes, will send addicts to jail rather than get them treatment. This will not help, and neither will their belief that treatment and enforcement are best left to the states. In Maryland, only one emergency treatment center was funded rather than the 10 that were proposed.
Even less is being done to confront mental illness, which is closely related to drug abuse. Suicide is on the rise, and now ranks as one of the top three causes of death among Marylanders under 35. Mental health issues receive much less attention than the opioid crisis. In many ways, it is a silent epidemic. And it is deadly.
These crises have stimulated action in the private sector. For example, pharmaceutical companies are expanding efforts to create nonaddictive pain treatments. Private foundations, including our family foundation, are helping local health care providers expand mental health and addiction treatment.
But more — much more — is needed, especially by government. Suicide and drug-related deaths are killing our young people, decimating their families and robbing all of us of their future. Many of those living with addiction are struggling to survive, unable to lead the healthy and productive lives we all want.
We are not living up to our responsibilities as human beings or citizens if we allow these epidemics to go unchecked.
David Trone is a Bethesda, Md., businessman and a former candidate for Congress.