My turn: Who is dying of drug overdoses? Not who you might think

By Mike Males, Special to CALmatters

Just-released figures show illicit-drug abuse deaths rose 4 percent in California in 2017 to 5,300, the highest number and rate in six decades of record-keeping.

The “good” news such as it is: California is doing much better than the rest of the United States. Nationally, drug deaths, mainly from opiates, soared 10 percent last year to a record 74,000. Projections indicate 2018 will claim another 70,000-plus lives .

In the early 1980s, Washington launched the “war on drugs” resulting in millions of arrests and prison sentences. Drug deaths exploded 10-fold. International drug-supply cartels mushroomed.

Yet, from top officials to popular culture, Americans still refuse to face the worldwide destruction our rampant drug abuse inflicts. The Office of National Drug Control Policy, Partnership for Drug-Free Youth, CASA-Columbia, and other agencies peddle distorted narratives to enable political evasion and protect established interests. Leaders recite the same old playbook blaming recurring drug scourges on people they most fear and hate.

Conservatives stigmatize immigrants and gangs. Liberals berate teenagers. Ex-presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush I and II, and current President Donald Trump, lambasted foreigners and immigrants for trafficking the drugs “ killing our kids .”

Drugs are just “ stupid things … teenagers ” do, former president Barack Obama echoed. Official and movie ads repeat the myth that the problem is just kids whose parents don’t lock up the medsLast week, a prominent news site ran a story with the fear headline: “Children and teens are dying from opioids at alarming rate.”

In fact, teenagers and immigrants are the only groups showing hopeful trends. Persons under age 20 comprised just 1.2 percent of opiate deaths in 2017. Parents were 10 times more likely to fatally overdose on opiates than teenagers.

Further, teens were the only age group to show a decline in drug deaths in recent years. Ads should be advising teens to get the pills away from the grownups.

The United States’ demand for drugs is the major factor driving drug-gang violence in Central America and mass migration northward. Cities with large immigrant populations, led by metropolitan Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio, have the nation’s lowest illicit-drug death levels.

California’s and America’s drug fatality crisis is firmly centered in whites and middle-agers. California’s 5.7 million white men age 25 and older account for 40 percent of drug deaths. That’s more than the total drug deaths among the state’s 24 million Latino, African, and Asian Americans of both sexes and all ages.

True, many adult drug problems began in teen or young-adult years. However, adult drug and family abuses are major factors in teens abusing drugs. The problem is circular and must be addressed with integrated strategies across families and communities.

The impolitic reality of illicit drug abuse centered in older whites, a population politicians and interests flatter, is exactly why America’s anti-drug efforts rooted in the popular politics of scapegoating fails so tragically.

In 2000, California, reversing its 1980s and ‘90s mass arrest and imprisonment crackdowns for drug-related offenses, began major reforms aimed at reducing imprisonment and promoting treatment for drug abusers.

These have been followed by some success – if “success” is stretched to mean, “slower drug-death increases than elsewhere.” Once suffering a far higher drug death rate than nationally prior to 2000, California’s drug fatality rate now stands at 40 percent below (including an opiate death rate 60 percent below) the national average.

Los Angeles, the nation’s worst metropolis, followed by New York City and San Francisco, for drug mortality prior to 1975, shows the most striking pattern.

Community-based rehabilitation strategies clearly address drug abuse much more effectively than prison. Ultimately, however, comprehensive, integrated approaches require wholesale rejection of leaders’ and interests’ exploitation of drug crises to stigmatize powerless populations.

That requires a larger revolution in how we Americans think about social problems, one only dimly visible at present.

Mike Males, [email protected], is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and a former professor at UC Santa Cruz. This is one in an occasional series of commentaries by Males about youth issues in California, written for CALmatters. Read others here and here.

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