Commentary: War on drugs a case of one step forward, two steps back
In June 1971, President Richard Nixon launched our nation's war on drugs.
Nearly 45 years later, it's difficult to ascertain whether the federal government has yet to win so much as a battle.
They sure haven't won the war.
A few weeks ago, Yavapai County and the Verde Valley celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its version of the war on drugs. More than 200 volunteers and supporters of MATForce celebrated the coalition's first decade of service.
Unlike the federal government's efforts, Yavapai County and MATForce legitimately can claim a few battlefield victories.
The first involved the scourge of methamphetamine that became such a nightmare for the Verde Valley in the late '90s that the Verde Independent and Camp Verde Bugle launched a series of stories under the banner of "Methedemic." A few years later, MATForce was formed.
The meth problem manifested itself with a series of some of the most maniacal and bizarre crimes ever seen in the Verde Valley. Guys running through neighborhoods naked and whacked out of the brains. A child abuse case in 2004 that local police described as the absolute worst they had ever seen. A young couple sleeping off a marathon of meth use while their young daughter drowned in a backyard pool.
In 2005, Cottonwood became the first municipality in Arizona to enact a local ordinance requiring pharmacies to track the purchase of pseudoephedrine, the over-the-counter cold medications required for the manufacture of methamphetamine. Camp Verde and Sedona soon followed, prompting then-Gov. Janet Napolitano to establish a number of statewide anti-meth initiatives.
It was a victory.
Just as we began to get a grip on the meth problem locally, the drug of choice dramatically shifted to opioid-based pain relievers such as oxycodone and oxycontin. This trend resulted in young people, in disproportionate numbers, losing their lives to overdoses of these prescription drugs.
In turn, we combatted the problem with a new Prescription Drug Monitoring Program maintained by the state Pharmacy Board.
This program, explained Cottonwood City Manager and MATForce Co-Chair Doug Bartosh, "records every prescription that is filled across the state is significant. Through the Sign Up to Save Lives program we now have 50 percent of prescribers signed up vs. 11 percent when we started. This has done much to discourage doctor shopping for opioid prescriptions as the prescribers were becoming the largest suppliers of prescription drugs. This year in the legislature, we are supporting a bill that will require prescribers to check the PDMP before prescribing controlled substances. We also worked with the emergency rooms both in the Verde Valley and the Prescott area to change their protocols about treating pain. Instead of issuing a prescription for pain medication for up to 90 tablets, they now prescribe a very small amount and direct them to their primary physician. We served as the test county for the state in terms of dealing with prescription medication abuse and put together an education program called Rx360 that reached over 5,000 young people and from 2012 to 2014 prescription drug use by young people decreased 36 percent. We also started the Dump the Drugs program and installed 10 permanent drop boxes in police departments across the county. Getting non-used drugs out of medicine cabinets was a big step also."
And it came just in time for the wave of "bath salts," "spice" and other synthetic drugs to run rampant in the Verde Valley.
This time, in 2013, it took the dogged persistence of Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk to find a way around the problem. Through some innovative legal maneuvering, Polk gave the retail and online distributors of bath salts and spice the choice of either discontinuing the sale of such, or face prosecution. Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Michael Bluff rewarded Polk's perseverance by issuing a permanent injunction against spice and bath salts in Yavapai County. The order bans all identified retailers and property landlords named in a lawsuit filed by Pole, and all persons acting in concert with them, from possessing, acquiring, selling or transferring synthetic drugs.
Now, here we are all these years later and we're at it again with a heroin problem that is making headlines with increasing frequency.
Are we winning this war? Or just repeatedly taking one step forward and two steps back?
"Will we ever stop substance abuse completely? Probably not and we certainly won't solve the problem by throwing everyone in jail," said Bartosh. "Like we are trying to do in MATForce, by focusing on education at the earliest ages, prevention, and treatment we will reduce the problem."
He has statistics to back up that claim.
"From 2006 to 2014," said Bartosh, "we have had a 55-percent reduction in youth prescription drug abuse. During this same time period, we had a 35-percent reduction in underage drinking. We have had a 20-percent increase in marijuana youth use ... Yavapai County has above average youth use in most substances. We are now below the state average for RX abuse but are above for most substances. This speaks to the importance of our work and why we need to keep at it."
As for the Verde Valley trend of effectively combatting one drug problem only to see a new one arise, Bartosh said that's frustrating but it comes with the territory.
"Once we educate people of the risk of one drug, another one pops up which is driven by a couple factors:
1) "The free market of the drug trade - as one becomes less popular, the dealers find something to take its place. We saw this with heroin. The cartels began to see a decline of the market share of marijuana and a tightening of controls on prescription opiates so they began producing heroin again and are creating the market demand.
2) "80 percent of those addicted to drugs also suffer some type of mental illness so until we appropriately fund mental health treatment in this country, we will have people self-medicating and people shooting up schools.
3) "We have created a culture of addiction in this country by convincing everyone, including our kids, that happiness can be found in a bottle, prescription, baggy, etc."
Bartosh said the basic law of supply and demand makes the drug business a cyclical market. The current wave of heroin abuse in the Verde Valley is nothing new. We've been down this road before.
"When I first became a police officer in 1975, we were dealing with a heroin epidemic then, although it was predominantly in the poor neighborhoods," said Bartosh. "In fact, I think my first arrest was a heroin junky and I was shaking worse than him. Today, we are seeing the use of heroin in all demographics."
Bartosh also said the problems we see with drugs in the Verde Valley are no different than what other communities in Arizona, and the entire nation, also experience.
"We are just like other communities, some just hide it better," he said.