We have a drug problem in southern Arkansas, and we can’t afford to ignore it any longer. For years, methamphetamine use has plagued our rural counties, sinking its claws into our communities and turning residents into addicts. A November 2017 issue of Rolling Stone magazine described the problems currently facing the state of Arkansas this way: “There are no jobs here, especially since Walmart moved on, and residents seem chained to a life of poverty, addiction, and dealing to support their habits.” While this description at first may seem harsh, the reality is that it is an accurate portrayal of the problems facing our rural residents. For many, drug use is an escape from the reality of life in south Arkansas, where our citizens are frustrated by a severe lack of jobs and educational opportunities in the towns where they live. And if we don’t take immediate action to address the root of the problem and help our people, the issues of poverty and addiction will only get worse.
Last month’s heartbreaking HBO documentary “Meth Storm” highlighted the deeply devastating effects meth use has had on rural Arkansas communities and the people who live here. In the film, Veronica Converse, a resident and addict from Clinton, Arkansas, explains how many people in her community turn to dealing drugs because it is often the only opportunity they feel they have. At one point she pointedly remarks, “Nine out of 10 people here are meth heads.” The documentary closely follows Veronica and her son, Teddy, who is jailed repeatedly for drug charges only to be released and return to the same habits that put him there. Sadly, the story of the Converse family is not unique to communities in southwest and central Arkansas. The film exposes the harsh realities of depressed communities and poor economic conditions in our state, where people often feel ignored, trapped, and hopeless.
And now our state’s residents are grappling with yet another addiction that is growing at an alarming rate: Opioids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of prescriptions written in this state far outnumber the people who live here; in fact, for every 100 residents living in Arkansas, there are now 116 prescriptions. And those most at risk are our low-income rural residents – the same people who have been struggling with meth use for decades. What’s even more concerning is the effect this is having on our young people. According to the Arkansas State Crime Lab, Arkansas now ranks first in the nation for nonmedical teen prescription drug abuse, and two thirds of those drugs are obtained by teens in the homes of their friends and family members. Overdoses are also on the rise. Data from the Arkansas Department of Health Emergency Management System reveals that the number of emergency medical calls made in 2016 that required the administration of Naloxone – the medication administered to combat opioid overdose – almost doubled from that of the previous year. In 2016 alone, over 2,456 calls were made due to Arkansas residents who had overdosed.
What’s interesting to note is how many opioid addiction cases in this state begin with what seems relatively harmless. If someone suffers a fall or is injured as the result of a car accident, they do what anyone would: Seek pain relief from their doctor. But opioid addiction often develops as the undesired result of what was originally a legitimate prescription yet eventually led to a dangerous drug dependency. And it’s affecting all of us. Almost everyone knows someone who is affected – from the veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome to the mother who started taking painkillers as a result of an injury – opioid addiction does not discriminate. So how do we approach a problem that is growing more and more prevalent with every passing day?
First, we must recognize the mistakes of our past. This is not the first opioid epidemic we’ve encountered, although it is the first to come in the form of legal prescriptions. In the early 80s and 90s, the heroin epidemic was widespread and predominantly affected communities of color throughout this nation. Large numbers of people were addicted, and our initial response was to criminalize the behavior of addicts, resulting in a massive increase in the number of incarcerations. It is imperative that we act upon a sincere desire to treat the cause rather than condemn the results. We also must take responsibility for the mistakes of our past and do all we can to help those who are reentering society from prison as a result of heroin related convictions in the 80s and 90s. Going forward, our actions must be guided by both empathy and compassion for those suffering from addiction rather than the judgment and condemnation we showed in the past.
We also must recognize the importance of keeping families together while treating the problem of addiction. According to the Arkansas Department of Human Services, “There are more than 5,000 children and youth in foster care in Arkansas, but only about 1,600 foster family homes.” And research shows a link between substance abuse and the growing number of children in foster care. In fact, more than half of the children who are removed from their homes in Arkansas are taken because of parental drug abuse. The current opioid crisis is forcing more and more children into state custody. Parental substance abuse is one of the primary causes of the rapid increase of children in the foster care system. Rural areas with a higher propensity for substance abuse also have a higher number of drug related foster care cases. In Arkansas, our system is overloaded, and we do not have enough resources or trained caseworkers to handle the growing crisis. By taking a proactive stance to address addiction, we have the capacity to keep families together and to give our state’s children the best chance at a promising future.
What that means is that legislators must take a two-pronged approach to solving the problem, expanding our state’s services through a whole patient approach to treat addiction while at the same time keeping families intact. Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) is one approach that balances medications with a proven history of success at treating opioid addiction with behavioral counseling. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “MAT increases social functioning and retention in treatment,” while decreasing “opioid use and opioid-related overdose deaths.” But as we seek out the programs like MAT that will do the most good for those suffering from addiction, our primary goal must be to ensure that working parents have access to the treatment they need and that they can care for their children while accessing outpatient services.
Finally, we cannot ignore the hopeless economic conditions that are the reality in rural Arkansas. We must make it a priority to create meaningful job opportunities for our residents in depressed rural areas and to raise wages for hourly employees so that they earn a livable wage. Too often our attention is focused on expanding economic growth in our more populated areas, while people in small communities all over our state are hurting – and hurting badly. The reality is that our legislators have failed to provide solutions and practical pathways for our rural residents to get ahead, and with no other viable option before them, many have turned to drugs for temporary relief from the hopelessness of their situation. It is our responsibility to provide practical pathways to affordable vocational and educational training for our people so that they have the means to climb up and out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
The people of Arkansas are facing real problems, and we need legislators who are focused on finding real solutions. The time is now to elect leaders who will take action to address the very real issues of poverty and addiction that are plaguing our state. We can’t afford to wait.
After all – it’s our tomorrow.