What’s been learned in decades-long war on drugs?

Two news items — one very large and one very small and, at first glance, not terribly related — emerged last week. One in Washington, D.C., and one in Lihue.

In the first, Kauai County Prosecutor Justin Kollar posted on Facebook a notification from the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office that the county has been awarded a $113,240 grant through the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance. The money is to support the drug nuisance abatement unit in Kollar’s office, which helps prosecute and shut down specific locations that have become drug dens.

If you’re in Kollar’s position, you know that funds to respond meaningfully to community alarm about drugs are incredibly hard to get.

The second piece of news got a lot of national attention. President Donald Trump announced that he was declaring a “state of emergency” regarding the well-chronicled opioid epidemic that is taking, by the estimate of a commission Trump himself appointed, 142 American lives every day. According to the interim report of the president’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, the country “is enduring a death toll equal to Sept. 11 (2001) every three weeks.” The underlining appears in the commission’s report.

Think about that.

Yet in his announcement, the president declined to declare the more serious national public health emergency. The distinction is critical. Simply saying, as Trump did, that there is an emergency is meaningless unless the federal government is ready to put money and other resources into it. The “public health emergency” declaration would have done that.

As The Associated Press noted in an analysis of Trump’s declaration, the president “came out this past week with initiatives that are not as big, bold or immediate as they appear.” That’s putting it mildly. Trump’s declaration committed his administration to do nothing tangible about drugs.

Nevertheless, the president tied the opioid crisis — which largely involves misprescribing or diversion of legitimately manufactured addictive pain killers and smuggling of the narcotic fentanyl from China — to his theory that Mexico is the source of all of America’s drug woes, which could be put to rest by building a wall. It’s true that some fentanyl comes through Mexico and that Mexican heroin is also involved.

But building a wall won’t do anything to address the prime cause of opioid deaths: the demand for painkillers by the general public of all socioeconomic classes and the willingness of doctors to prescribe them and drug diversion criminals to misdirect them.

Back to Kauai for a moment. Kollar knows, as much as anyone in the county, how tight resources to combat opioid problems are. So does our health care community. The era in which Kauai’s drug abuse situation consisted overwhelmingly of methamphetamine abuse has ended. While there’s still plenty meth out there, the fact is that illicit use of opiate narcotics and heroin has emerged from Kauai’s shadows and has started to kill people here.

The unfortunate part of Kollar’s announcement is that it’s a big deal. Like other local governments, ours must scratch around anyplace to cobble together a pitifully small amount of money to make any inroads against drugs on the island. The $113,240 the prosecutor’s office received is chump change in the federal government scheme of funding.

Back in 1973 and 1974, I ran a program at the Columbia University School of Journalism to try to get reporters to write more intelligently and with a better sense of context about what was, even then, the widely recognized “war on drugs.” The White House of President Richard Nixon had started the Office of Drug Abuse Policy and ceaselessly declared that America was suffering from an “epidemic” of drug abuse. This was, of course, long before First Lady Nancy Reagan opined that the problem would vanish if people would “just say no.”

As part of my fellowship, I wrote a booklet for reporters interested in covering drugs. In 1973-74, the United States was just getting past the golden age of psychoactive drugs that began in the late 1960s. But by 1973, it was more than evident that this was not a countercultural fad, but a huge social challenge. Never mind that opium had emerged as a problem in the late 19th century or that the German drug company Bayer had patented, in 1898, a highly effective new cough medicine. They called it “Heroin.”

In my booklet, I warned reporters to be “especially skeptical of treatment officials” and that “it’s a good time for journalists to rethink their own impressions or misimpressions about drugs.”

So here we are, 44 years later. Very much like now, we had a president who made a big deal of rhetoric about combating drugs, but did comparatively little in the treatment sphere that amounted to anything. Prescription drugs were a problem then, just as today. As a newspaper reporter in Chicago and Los Angeles, I made something of a specialty of exposing doctors who ran “prescription mills,” to use the term of art from the era.

Yet here we are in 2017. Our county prosecutor must scramble for crumbs to do his job helping rid neighborhoods of drug houses. Prescription pain killers and heroin are making their mark on Kauai. Our county’s laudable plan to build an eight-bed adolescent substance abuse treatment center is bogged down in the unending struggle to find the money for it.

In response to the very intelligent and thoughtful recommendations of his own commission, Trump refuses to commit a single extra federal dollar. Except, of course, to build his wall. The drug emergency has been an emergency for so long that the term has lost all meaning.

It can’t be true, can it, that after the passing of this many decades our federal government has learned nothing about how to handle a war on drugs and our overtaxed local prosecutor is reduced to begging for pennies when he needs dollars? Unfortunately, it can.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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