Addiction and drug abuse is rampant in our state. Let’s learn why.
Written by Erin Bigler, Action Utah Issue Captain
Summer vacation just started, but to understand Utah’s prescription drug crisis we’ll have to go back to school—social studies, geography, and a history lesson help explain our growing “opidemic.”
In the late 90s, pharmaceutical companies peddled painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone as non-addictive miracle drugs. Without understanding the devastating impact of opioids long-term, doctors jumped at the chance to offer real relief to suffering patients. Utahns—predominately Mormons who abstain from harmful substances like tobacco and alcohol—never questioned their misguided physicians and started popping pills at an unprecedented rate. We never considered that we might become “addicts.” After all, most of us took our medications only as prescribed. By the time doctors knew enough to hold back, it was too late. Denied the pills we’d come to depend on, we turned to cheaper deadlier alternatives like heroin and fentanyl.
And these, it turned out, were easy to find. Conveniently located at the junction of I-15 and I-80, Salt Lake City is a major hub for drug traffickers running north from Central and South America and east from California. It’s an easy stop on the way to popular party destinations like Las Vegas, too. Some speculate that our squeaky-clean Mormon reputation worked to our disadvantage—in a mostly white, middle-class, family-oriented state, legislators and law enforcement neglected to help us guard against a substantial drug trade until we were literally dying in the streets.
Essentially, we fell prey to “other syndrome.” Like teaching stranger danger to protect children, when research tragically demonstrates abuse is most likely to occur at the hands of family members or other trusted adults, we believed drugs were a criminal, poor people, “other” people problem. We were wrong. Drug addiction is a human problem, irrespective of race, age, sex, religion, or socioeconomic status.
Just the Facts
Our susceptibility is currently evidenced by cold hard statistics. Utah is ranked 4th in the nation for drug overdose. When we factor out street narcotics and consider only “classic” opioids such as Lortab and OxyContin, our overdose rates are second only to West Virginia.
Roughly 10 Utahns die each week from opioid-related drug overdose. The Utah Department of Health reports a 400 percent increase in prescription drug overdoses between 2000-2016. And we can’t stereotype who may be at risk; over one-third of adults statewide have been prescribed painkillers in the past 12 months. Of the 200 children treated at Primary Children’s Hospital for overdose between 2011-2015, an alarming 85 percent were under age 5.
As a social worker I specialize in adult substance abuse treatment and referrals. My clients’ narratives are varied and complex. Some drug abuse stems from extreme trauma. Utah is commonly known as one of the happiest and healthiest states in the nation. We’re understandably less eager to acknowledge our dark side: we also rank well above the national average for sexual assault and domestic violence. One in three Utah women suffers domestic violence; one in five of our children will be sexually abused before age 18. As any chronic pain patient can attest, opioids have the extraordinary ability to blunt and dull the senses. Many Utahns turn to opioids to numb the pain of adverse childhood and traumatic events.
Addiction can also spring from routine prescriptions after an injury or surgery too. Regardless of its genesis, addiction is found among all demographics. Opioids are in our homes and in our public spaces. Recent media attention on the state capitol has shed light on the chaos of “the block,” the area near the overcrowded Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake.
So what is being done about it? Stay tuned for Part 2, coming up next week.