Curing Addiction, Not Chasing Drugs

Policy must address the larger issue of risky substance use.

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The article, Study: Heroin Abuse Increase May Be Due to Prescription Painkiller Crackdown, highlights a predictable trend in drug use resulting from America's tendency to focus on one drug or another rather than the disease of addiction. The steps that Washington and other states have taken to control the misuse of prescription drugs have been important and to some extent successful in reducing prescription drug misuse, but they have not succeeded in addressing the larger issue of risky substance use and addiction.

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

Addiction is a complex brain disease that frequently involves multiple substances including nicotine, alcohol, illicit and controlled prescription drugs and perhaps other compulsive behaviors as well  At least 16 percent of the population has this disease – that's 40 million people, more than those affected by heart conditions (27 million), diabetes (26 million) or cancer (19 million).

Another 80 million people, while not addicted, use addictive substances in ways that threaten public health and safety. More than half of those with this disease are risky users of more than one substance and about one in five have addiction involving multiple substances.

It makes no sense to focus on only one manifestation of addiction, which all too often gets replaced by another, as appears to be occurring in several states. Instead, we must address the disease broadly to avoid a costly game of whack-a-mole where we clamp down on addiction involving one drug (in this case, prescription painkillers) only to see the problem reemerge in the form of another (heroin).

Linda Richter

Associate Director
Division of Policy Research and Analysis CASAColumbia