INSIGHTS: War on drug abuse has hundreds of bullets — and not one that ends the fight

Author: Joey Bunch - April 23, 2018 - Updated: May 10, 2018

drug abuse(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Millions of dollars and millions of words are spent on fighting Colorado’s drug addiction every year. Real intentions, real money and real lives are at stake.

That’s the fight Colorado is in, and it’s emotional, fiscal and, yes, political.

In one of the most interesting under-the-radar debates of this session, doctors are quarreling with pharmacies about transmitting prescriptions for hard drugs over the internet. rather than on written prescriptions. Nearly all the pharmacies have the software, but only about half the doctors’ offices do.

Pharmacists are being put on the front lines of determining if a prescription is forged, which is a pipeline of illegal pills to the street. Pueblo Democratic Rep. Daneya Esgar’s bill would try to clamp off the flow at its most common source, the prescription pad. The politically powerful Colorado Medical Society opposed the bill, and will likely kill it, because of doctors’ complaints and cost and training to maintain the records digitally, rather than dashing out a prescription on a slip of paper.

Opponents characterize it as a bill about regulations sprinkled in good intentions and hope.

“This bill will not stop criminal behavior,” state Rep. Susan Beckman, a Republican from Littleton, said on the House floor. “It will not stop doctors from over-prescribing.”

Beckman is no ideological gunslinger in this fight. She was once in charge of the Colorado Department of Human Services’ expansion into 285 state buildings, as well as managing human resources for more than 5,000 employees. She helped build the army to fight this social problem and many others.

Her appraisal was inarguably true.

On a Tuesday morning last week, retired Navy Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld helped Colorado law enforcement launch a new program aimed at getting help for heroin users and putting away dealers and suppliers.

Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until his retirement in 2015, started the national SAFE Project — an acronym from stop the addiction fatality epidemic — with his wife, Mary. She stood by his side at the U.S, Attorney’s Office in Denver, driven to activism by grief, passion and a sense of mission.

Their son Jonathan had spent 15 months in programs trying to get clean, before they dropped off the 19-year-old at the University of Denver last fall. Three days later he was found unresponsive in his dorm room, the victim of an accidental overdose of heroin laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl.

“Many people have a simple understanding of addiction,” Sandy Winnefeld wrote in the Atlantic magazine that November. “They think it happens only to dysfunctional people from dysfunctional families, or to hopeless people living on the street. But our addicted population is spread across every segment of society: rich and poor, white and black, male and female, old and young.

“There are several gateways to opioid addiction. Some people suffer a physical injury, and slowly develop a dependency on prescribed painkillers. Others self-medicate for mental ailments using whatever substance is available.”

Many of us know someone in the grip of drug addiction, and some of us have followed loved ones to the grave. We all pay the consequences, one way or another.

Heroin overdose deaths increased 42 percent in Colorado between 2015 and 2016. There were 2,795 non-fatal heroin overdose emergency department visits 2011 and 2016, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Colorado.

In 2016 alone authorities know of 3,465 times that an overdose antidote drug likely saved a life during a heroin overdose.

“Americans are dying every 12 minutes from heroin and opioid-related overdoses,” Reggie Bicha, the compassionate executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, told me. “When we’re faced with an issue that claims so many lives so quickly, our response has to be just as rapid. We have to put our heads down and get to work.

Stigma is a big part of the problem, Bicha said, and DHS will soon launch a public awareness campaign called “Lift the Label.”

DHS practically pleads with people to use the free crisis hotline, 1-844-493-8255 (or -TALK) or text TALK to 38255 to connect with a professional who can listen and hook them up with services.

“We want Coloradans to know that help is available for those who ask,” Bicha said.

The state also has walk-in sites open around the clock seven days a week. The website has a great slogan, “When you don’t know where to start, start here.”

Government digs and digs into a hole that seems always to be getting deeper and wider. This is a fight about individuals, because we will never win the war on drugs. Every criminal we arrest will be replaced by another. Every grave we fill will be followed by another.

There is a story I use in speeches about impossible odds. It’s from a book called “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley.

In it, an old man is walking along a beach before dawn.The surf is driving ashore thousands of starfish. He meets a boy throwing them back in the ocean, because when the sun rises they will shrivel in the sand. The old man tells the boy it’s pointless. “Every time you save one, another one returns, often the same one! You can’t save them all, so why bother trying?”

The boy throws in another.

“‘Well, it matters to this one.’ And then he flung the starfish into the welcoming sea.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.

One comment

  • Peter

    April 23, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    Someone dies of an opioid or heroin overdose every 12 minutes in America, but the Colorado Medical Society opposes common sense legislation to require some sort of electronic validation of a prescription because of the convenience of scribbling out a prescription on a piece of paper?

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