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Guest Post: Addressing Substance Abuse Requires Us All to Work Together

In honor of Overdose Awareness Day, Rep. Luján emphasizes the value ofcommunity-based solutions to substance abuse.

This is a guest blog post from U.S. Representative Ben Ray Luján.

Substance abuse is one of the most pressing public health concerns facing our Nation.  According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 22.6 million Americans aged 12 and older had abused illegal drugs over the past month.  August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day, a time to highlight the danger posed not only by illegal drugs but also by the abuse of prescription drugs.

In New Mexico, our communities know the problem of substance abuse and overdose all too well.  For many years, New Mexico has been among the states with the highest rates of substance abuse.  At the national level, last year the CDC reported that drug overdose led to more than 37,000 deaths in 2009.  Of these, almost 21,000 deaths involved prescription drugs, and well over half of those involved opioid pain relievers—exceeding the number of overdose deaths involving heroin and cocaine.  While illegal drugs continue to plague our Nation, prescription drug overdose has become an epidemic.

A strategy to address substance abuse must consist of a range of approaches that includes prevention, treatment, and law enforcement elements. Addressing substance abuse cannot be done in a top-down approach, but will instead require all of us to work together.  We cannot hope to lower substance abuse rates by working in a vacuum—we must coordinate our efforts at the Federal, state, county, and local government levels. We must work together with friends, families, communities, educators, and young people.

One aspect of this problem that we understand particularly well in New Mexico is how drug abuse affects not only individuals but also our culture. Coming from small towns all across New Mexico, people in my district talk a lot about culture and tradition—and its importance to a strong and stable community. As I have joined the community in walks to raise awareness and held events in my district, one thing that I have consistently heard is the notion that we are losing our culture, tradition, heritage, and pride in our communities.  This is not unique to New Mexico, however, as drug abuse poses a threat to the fabric of communities across the country.

As we mark today’s occasion and remember those who have been lost to substance abuse, we must realize that the equalizer in our fight against substance abuse is education.  Working as communities to raise awareness and spread education on the dangers of substance abuse—particularly the abuse of prescription drugs—will help to avert future tragedies.  We can also limit the availability of prescription drugs by locking medicine cabinets, properly disposing of prescription drugs, and supporting smart law enforcement efforts.  Government also has an important role to play, and now 49 out of 50 states have enacted legislation to establish prescription drug monitoring programs to prevent diversion and abuse.  By working together as part of a comprehensive strategy, we can rise to this challenge and reduce substance abuse and its often deadly consequences.