By Steve Hunley

The problem of drug addiction in America is complex, troubling and growing at an alarming rate.  Yet I wonder if our country has really made the effort to properly regulate opioid painkillers.  Clearly if Walmart can instantly know how and when to restock its shelves through their perpetual inventory system, the technology exists to more closely monitor opiod prescriptions.  We regulate virtually everything in this country; in fact, government regulations cost business in the United State almost $2 TRILLION per year.  That equates to some $14,000 per household in this nation.  There have been 3,300 NEW regulations promulgated this year alone and we’re a month away from the New Year.  These regulations run the gamut from the food we eat to light bulbs and medicines, as well as when we can access services and facilities.  Most of the new regulations haven’t even been approved by Congress, but were foisted on the country by executive agencies.  Now, you can’t tell me the state legislature and Congress can’t better control opioid painkillers.

Abuse of opioid painkillers has become an epidemic in this country and I have been remiss about editorializing about it before now.  I was reminded of this crisis in an excellent article in the Tennessean by Mike Reicher.  These opioids are one of the most addictive substances known to mankind and I don’t believe that is an overstatement.  Addiction is quite democratic and doesn’t discriminate; it can possess the young or the old.  Addiction does not recognize gender, skin color or sexual preference.  Nor does addiction favor one class over the other, as it can grip the wealthiest amongst us or plague the poorest of us.  Addiction can claim the most famous celebrity as easily as it does a hermit.  It stalks human beings and pursues a person relentlessly after it has taken hold.

Addiction not only takes lives, but destroys the most loving of families.  It brings nothing but heartache and misery to those who are addicted, as well as the addict’s family.  It also can take the life of the innocent just as quickly and easily.

Mike Reicher’s piece in the Tennessean brought that pain home in very stark terms, as he related the suffering endured by Jacob Akers’ mother, Carol.  Jacob had done everything he was supposed to do; he worked hard, had graduated a pre-med program and had just proposed to his high-school sweetheart when his life was snuffed out in a car accident.  That alone would have been more than a tragedy, but it was even more so when the driver of the other car was found to apparently be driving under the influence of amphetamines and hydrocodone.  Jacob Akers, a promising and bright young man, had his life blown out like a candle in an instant.  Yet, Carol Akers continues to suffer the loss of her son.  Her anguish is difficult for most of us to even begin to imagine.

Reicher’s article related some startling statistics that all of us ought to carefully think about and consider: the number of people driving on Tennessee’s highways and byways under the influence of drugs has risen sharply.  That number has risen almost 90% over the span of five years.  In 2015, there were more people killed in traffic accidents linked to drug usage than alcohol related deaths.  There are more people using these drugs than folks who use tobacco.

Unlike alcohol, it takes months to get back toxicology reports and there is no national standard to determine just how impaired someone is under the influence of drugs.  That fact alone makes the job of prosecutors difficult.  As Reicher pointed out in his article, distinctions matter and can make the difference between someone going to prison for twenty years or merely two for reckless driving.  Reicher quoted one assistant DA in Tennessee as saying, “The state, as a whole, is being swamped.”

The issue of addiction is reaching epidemic proportions, yet most of us give it little thought.  Think about a pandemic contagion raging throughout the country; think about the precautions most of us would take to avoid catching it.  Think about how avidly we would be pushing our government to find a cure or solution.  Yet we sat idly by while pill mills set up shop throughout many communities and gave little thought to the fact the people dispensing opioid painkillers were not even physicians; the pill mills merely needed a licensed doctor on staff.  Clearly these pill mills were merely legally-sanctioned high toned drug dealers dealing out drugs that were manufactured and intended for the use of terminally ill people who were suffering.  Obviously, one needn’t worry about a terminally ill person becoming addicted to medication, yet these pills are finding their way to people who have no business using them at all.

Nor is the epidemic confined to Tennessee and one can find shocking statistics in most counties in the United States.  The coroner in Toledo, Ohio says there have been 113 people who have died “as a result of heroin, opiate, or fentanyl overdose” last year.  Quite nearly 30 more people have died from the same cause in the first quarter of 2016.  Incidentally, fentanyl is the drug that killed Prince; fentanyl is being referred to now as the “kill pill.”  The number of fentanyl deaths has risen steadily, from 392 in 2013 to 1,400 in 2014.  These figures don’t even include deaths from methadone use.

We’ve seen home invasions occur in Knoxville and Knox County and the sheriff says they are related to drug use.  Crime will continue to escalate as addicts become more desperate to feed their addiction.  Serious addicts have no morals, little, if any compassion; they are driven by one thing and one thing only: the need to feed that addiction.  They will just as gladly steal from family and friends as strangers.

Many folks, I think, are reluctant to discuss the subject, even with family members and close friends; some parents will steadfastly refuse to even admit  a child is an addict when it is readily apparent to just about everyone else.  Surely, some are ashamed or fearful a loved one might be viewed as a common “junkie”, but no problem can ever be resolved without first facing the problem.

People, we have a problem.  We must face that problem and insist the state legislature and Congress begin to address it, pronto.  There is not a single reason technology cannot tell us where every single pill goes and it’s final destination, meaning who received the pills and to whom they were sold.  Cost and inconvenience are trivial when compared to the danger posed to society.  The government’s first obligation to its citizens is to protect the safety and welfare of Americans.

Many of us already know people whose lives have been touched in some way by addiction.  Many millions of us may have that terrible tragedy inflicted upon us and our own family and friends unless we immediately become proactive.  By being proactive, I do not mean posting on your Facebook page.  I mean call your Congressman and U.S. senators; call your state legislators and let them know you expect them to start addressing this problem right away.

Do it before you lose a loved one.  It’s too late when tragedy strikes.  Simply ask Carol Akers.