Substance abuse continues to plague our country, our region, and our town. Last week brought us the horrifying news of more deaths. We continue to fight abuse with increased law enforcement and imprisonment. But with so many families torn apart and so many people struggling to even survive, do we need new methods to fight and overcome this challenge? 

I have met too many families with children in jail.

I often hear people say the police need to do more. “Lock them up!” they say. The problem is, we have. The police have done their job, but it’s just not working. And substance abuse touches every family on Grand Island. How many people can we lock up? 

The United States has the highest prison population in the word (well over 2 million people). It also has nearly the highest incarceration rate in the world. To put it differently, our country has only about 4% of the world’s population, but it has nearly 22% of its prisoners. Does this make sense in the land of the free and the home of the brave? 

On Grand Island (in the office from which I write this letter), I’ve talked to mothers with children (former star athletes and honor students) in prison who are still using and addicted. Locking these kids up does nothing to get them healthy; it just exposes them to worse.

Of course, we need to arrest dealers. But dealers don’t often look like they do in the movies. There are many stories of parents who were thrown behind bars for long sentences because of the mere association with family members involved in substance abuse, e.g., conspiracy charges. 

If you have two people involved in something illegal any way whatsoever, and you have the makings of a conspiracy charge. And that charge by itself is an offense. But no one should be in jail for something like living with a husband or boyfriend who is involved in the drug trade. There are far too many mothers who can only ask their children if they did their homework over jailhouse telephones. 

Substance abuse is a dangerous alteration of reality

People do drugs because they make you feel good. Sure, some substances alter your perception. But the drugs that are the most dangerous, trigger chemical responses that make your brain feel euphoric. In World War II, we now know that the Japanese and Germans used all sorts of drugs to make soldiers in the most desperate of circumstances fight on with zest. 

On a related note, the German drug company Bayer (yes, the Aspirin company) first used the word “heroine” to market the drug. The name was derived from the Greek word “heros” because of its perceived "heroic" effects. Or to be more clearly, certain drugs can make you feel really, really happy, and strong. And they work even if you are truly lost and helpless. 

We all want to be happy. We all want to feel good. We are hard wired to avoid things that hurt us, and to do things that make you feel good. And most of us know to some extent the desperate lows of self pity and doubt. When you are in a state of depression it’s like being buried deep at the bottom of the ocean. And certain substances offer a temporary trip to the surface, to air, to life, and to sunlight. The problem is, it’s a fleeting relief, which only results with abrupt plummet to an even darker, colder, and dangerous abyss. 

Substance abuse must be treated primarily as public health issue; not a criminal issue.

Look at almost any substance abuser. Do they look well? For example, the side effects of heroin use, include abscesses, infected heart valves, blood borne infections, constipation, and pneumonia. People on drugs look ill, because they are. 

We should treat them like people suffering from an ailment and not someone who is morally deficient. I strongly believe we most focus on hospital beds first and not prison cells. And yes, medical treatment for extreme addiction often fails. But treatments for almost any truly dangerous ailment have similar results. 

As part of changing how we view drug addiction, we need to take the sting and embarrassment out of being an addict. It should not be something we are afraid to address and talk about. Can you imagine trying to seek help and comfort for an ailment you had to hide from the world? For example, imaging having a terrible flu and having to pretend it’s all well. On top of that, imagine not being able to go to the drug store and only relying on desperate people offering dubious sources of treatment. 

Again, addiction hits every family. Some communities have done things like place butterflies in their yard symbolizing that they have struggles with the challenges of addiction. I’m not sure that’s the right response, but places that have allowed addicts to come forward and seek medical help have seen dramatic declines in abuse rates. 

We must create a culture of real joy.

I’ve said it before. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’m a proud teetotaler. In my home hangs an old Currier & Ives print titled “The Drunkards Progress,” which was passed down from my father. It’s an exaggerated story of a person’s progress from a few drinks with friends to desolation and ruin. 

I don’t believe that’s the course all drinkers take. And I don’t think my abstinence makes me better than you in anyway. To be certain, I often feel the opposite when I’m in the presence of some sommelier or a connoisseur of fine spirits. And I’m quite certain that I’ve missed out on something because I have never engaged in the full spectrum of human experience due to my failure to imbibe even casually. But it’s just who I am and how I was brought up. I am, however, at least thankful for one important side effect of not drinking. I don’t need a drink to have fun. 

In my home as a child we knew how to have fun—good, clean, fun. There was never a need to take it up a notch or get wild. Conversation and laughter were enough. And instead of going to extremes I learned from an early age to find joy in simplicity: a walk with a dog, a board game, a feeling of a cold rain drop on your face.  

Again, I’m not trying to be judgmental. I’ve worked very closely with the hospitality industry, including the booze business. I’ve made a few bucks off alcohol and helped others make a heck of lot more.  So, I’m certainly not above anyone having a causal drink with friends—it’s been part of life since the dawn of time. Remember, America once tried the puritanical route and made drinking illegal and even unconstitutional. A lot of good that did us. 

But I always try and speak honestly, and I think as a society we would be wise to reconsider where we are. I’m not sure there are gateway drugs, but there are certainly gateway behaviors. And the over reliance of substances (even alcohol unchecked) to bring joy into our life can lead us away from things that make us truly happy—our families, our talents, and the simple joys of life. 

I don’t have all the answers, but I’m looking.

I said before I’m working on a summit to address these issues. We now have the format set, please stay tuned for information about the forum and date. I am going to ask people from diverse backgrounds (recovering addicts, clergy, educators, etc.) to offer up solutions. And then I am going to open the floor for discussion. After that discussion, I want us to have one clear goal. And then, I want us to work on that one clear and manageable goal together. 

I set forth some of my thoughts in this letter. But as I said, there is no easy answer, and this challenge can only be overcome thought many small steps. Certainly, no local leader has the power to end substance abuse alone. But together, I think we can think differently, find creative solutions, and help heal our community. 

With highest regards,