Sustained Outrage

Rural drug use: deadly, and getting deadlier

The Senate Judiciary Committee hit the road today to hold a hearing on drug-related crime in rural areas in Chairman Patrick Leahy‘s home state of Vermont. There was some pretty compelling testimony, which I’ve excerpted and linked to below.

First, from R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who noted that in 2006, the last year data was available, “drug-induced deaths surpassed gun-shot wounds and now rank second only to motor vehicle crashes as a cause of injury deaths in our country.” He continued:

In 2008, Americans living in rural areas used illicit drugs at lower overall levels of current use (approximately 6 percent) than their counterparts in suburban and metropolitan areas (8-9 percent). Rural Americans also show lower rates of diagnosable drug abuse and dependence. However, closer inspection of the data reveals some concerns about rural drug use.

Youth in rural America show higher rates of use, particularly for methamphetamines, prescription pain killers and alcohol. Data show that 2.9 percent of young adults, ages 18 to 25, use methamphetamine in the most rural areas. That rate is nearly double the 1.5 percent of young adults using meth in urban areas. This pattern is similar for OxyContin, with 2.8 percent of young adults in the most rural areas abusing these drugs, compared to 1.7 percent of urban young adults. The latest data also show that youth in the smallest rural areas binge drink at higher rates than their peers in suburban and metropolitan areas. Additionally, children aged 12 to 17 from the most rural areas are more likely to have used alcohol, engaged in heavy drinking and driven under the influence. These differences are significant and pose unique challenges in rural communities.

One of the most alarming issues in rural areas is the rate of overdose deaths. Rural communities have experienced significant increases in overdose death rates, rapidly outpacing the rate increases in urban and suburban communities. These deaths are largely attributed to the rise in misuse of prescription painkillers. The latest study available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examining data from 1999-2004 shows that overdose death rates in predominantly rural states are higher than in more metropolitan states. Vermont, Maine and West Virginia all experienced significant increases in overdose death rates during this time: 164 percent, 210 percent and 550 percent respectively.

Col. Thomas L’Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, described how Vermont uses drug task forces drawing from various law enforcement agencies, an approach that is also used in West Virginia.

Several years of wide spread focus using this strategy resulted in substantial drops in heroin arrests and for a period of time the demand for the drug subsided. Although we made great strides against heroin we know now that the powerful pain medication oxycodone, commonly found in the prescription drug OxyContin, quickly moved in to take its place on the street. The diversion of prescription narcotics is one of the greatest challenges we now face in Vermont. OxyContin has become as widespread and available as heroin or crack cocaine. With the increase in demand for narcotics such as OxyContin we are also seeing a spike in the number of heroin cases state wide. In the past 16 months there has been a 115% increase in the number of heroin cases conducted by the Drug Task Force. This can be attributed in part to the increase in OxyContin addictions in the state and the fact that comparatively the street value of a bag of heroin is generally less than half the value of one 80mg OxyContin pill.

His description of how heroin is undergoing a bit of a resurgence, particularly as an alternative for oxycodone users, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Barbara A. Floersch, associate director of the Washington County Youth Service Bureau/Boys & Girls Club, also had some great points to make:

[R]esearch shows that the more assets a young person has, the more likely it is that he or she will avoid risky behaviors; and, conversely, the fewer assets, the more likely that the young person will get into trouble. These assets are basic: young people do best when they are valued by the community, treated with respect, have meaningful relationships with good role models, are engaged in creative activities, do well in school, and so forth….

Basically, preventing drug abuse, crime, and other social ills can only be accomplished through actions that promote physical, mental, and spiritual health and wholeness. When young people are belittled or abused, do not perceive their own promise, are emotionally maimed, are estranged from the community — that creates crime. It creates wounded children who self-medicate with drugs, who have little experience of caring and responsibility, and who have nothing to lose. The well-being of children and well-being of the community cannot be separated.

Floersch then made the connection between at-risk youth and the people who end up in prison.

The largest population under the supervision of the Vermont Department of Corrections are 18- to 25-year-old men. The majority of young men in jail did not graduate from high school and many have learning disorders. About 95 percent of them have substance abuse problems that have not been treated, and that aren’t treated in jail. Most have backgrounds of abuse or neglect — many were placed in foster care because their homes were chaotic or worse. The number of women supervised by Corrections, while much lower, has been growing. Almost 90 percent have been abused, 95 percent have substance abuse problems, and 60 percent have diagnosed mental health problems. These are the young people who fell through the cracks in our support system, and helping them make a successful transition back into the community from jail is our best chance to help them move their lives onto a different track, our best chance to help them become contributors to the community, our best chance to stop the in-jail/out-of-jail revolving door that can so easily become a life.

As I’ve noted before, West Virginia spends roughly six cents on probation for every dollar it spends on corrections. That hardly sounds like the kind of dedication of resources needed to start reducing West Virginia’s prison population.