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Are Drug Addicts Less Valuable Than Students? Florida Says Yes, Wrongly.

| March 18, 2018

Geoff Livingston, who took the picture above, wrote: 'This is my friend Gretchen. She just lost her 26 year old son to the U.S. opioid epidemic, and is in mourning. '

Geoff Livingston, who took the picture above last September, wrote: ‘This is my friend Gretchen. She just lost her 26 year old son to the U.S. opioid epidemic, and is in mourning.’

The Florida Legislature got some work done without excessive brawling by the time it ended the 2018 session last Sunday. Three numbers stood out: the $400 million set aside for school security and mental health in the aftermath of the Parkland school massacre, the $53 million to be spent on fighting the opioid epidemic, and $173 million in tax breaks.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive The contrast between the money spent on school security and the opioid crisis is stark, and unfortunate. Tackling the opioid crisis was the priority when the legislative session began. Gov. Rick Scott had declared the crisis a public health emergency. He was right. In 2016, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement identified opioids as either the cause of death or a contributor in the death of 5,725 people. That’s a 35 percent increase over the previous year. Figures for 2017 are still being worked on, but they’re certain to show another alarming rise.

In other words, as many people are dying from the opioid crisis in Florida every day as were murdered in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school massacre. (The national rate was 175 deaths per day in 2016, twice the rate of deaths by firearms.) Yet here we are, spending eight times as much money on school security and mental health as we are on opioids, whose abuse is not foreign to mental health issues.  

Florida is not even spending $53 million to fight opioids. Half that money is federal, not state. The Legislature lumped in the amount to pad the figure and make it seem as if it were doing more than it really is. Sen. Darryl Rouson, the St. Petersburg Democrat, near the end of session tried to add $25 million to the pot. He was told there was no money left. “In an $80 billion budget, that’s nothing,” arch-conservative Pam Bondi, the attorney general, said at the beginning of session. She was referring to the then-proposed $53 million figure. “Nothing given all the lives that have been taken due to opioid abuse,” she said. So $25 million was considerably less than nothing.

And in an $80 billion budget that also included $173 million in tax breaks, it’s hard to believe legislators couldn’t find the additional help for addicts. I’m sure Floridians would be glad to forego their back-to-school sales tax holiday, a marketing scam to pad retailers’ pockets more than any kind of taxpayer saving that wouldn’t be wiped out by the cost of a slice of pizza on the way out the store, if it meant aiding a few thousand people off of drugs. (Well, maybe I shouldn’t be so sure: we live in a state where enough people love to consider recipients of welfare and food stamps subhuman. Similarly judging addicts as entirely responsible for themselves, and therefore fair game for vilification, isn’t usually far behind however false the premise that they’re entirely responsible for their problem. We’ll get to that.)

We should take the analysis a step further. Last week on David Ayres’s Free For All Fridays on WNZF he raised the question of overspending on school security as possibly more of a psychological than an effective way to address the issue. He was just asking the question, not stating it as fact. But he was closer to the truth than not.

Politically there may be a big difference between students and drug addicts. Ethically, there is none.

It’s obviously perilous amid a population happy to militarize its schools and razor-wire them with active-shooter exercises to question whether a cop in every school is necessary. But the reality is that armed cops in schools aren’t going to stop shootings, and a cop in every school is a costly, arbitrary standard that has no provable connection to reality as an effective security measure. I can understand having cops in middle and high schools. Those schools are like small cities, and adolescents often act like aliens from undiscovered worlds. But that’s not the case in elementary schools, where cops only serve as police PR. That’s too heavy a cost to pay just to feel better about security, and much too heavy a cost to pay when we have more pressing and deadly problems besieging our society. (Thankfully our school board, and particularly our school administration under its quietly steely new superintendent, aren’t altogether taking the bait: they intend to place a cop in every school, but aside from a few common-sense safety measures, it won’t go much further than that.)

By every measure, there’s a much more serious and present problem with addicts. Are they less valuable than students? The Legislature answered this month with a big Yes. The question is uncomfortable, because on its face an addict with a bunch of narcotics in the belly or a heroin syringe between the toes doesn’t compel the same protective reaction as students and the victims of a massacre. But ethically there’s no difference. (Ethically there’d be no difference between innocent students and felons in prison, though that’s been settled a long time ago: we spend about four times more on felons in prison than we do on students.)

I suppose we can argue that the difference between the addict and a student at school is personal responsibility. The addict ultimately makes a choice to be an addict in a way that a student never chooses to be the victim of a shooting. But even that reasoning is misplaced. Something happened, starting in the 1990s, that changed the face of addiction. It was no longer the stereotypical hedonist or criminal slipping down the slope of addiction. The moment opioids became physicians’ shortcut to “pain management” and pharmaceuticals’ speedway to profits, addiction became Everyman, Everywoman. The epidemic was born of criminal abuse–not by addicts, but by their caretakers.

The closest analogy that should resonate with many people in Florida is the housing crisis: Millions of American homeowners did not suddenly become greedy and stupid in the 2000s when they signed those balloon mortgages or leveraged their homes. They were systematically bamboozled first by real estate and banking industries, then by a judicial system that–in Flagler County as everywhere else–became the legal henchman of mortgage lenders. The homeowner played a part, just as the addict always plays a part. But there would have been no crisis without an infrastructure of deception not even rating agencies and seasoned Wall Street veterans  could make sense of (as Michael Lewis so depressingly documented).

There would be no opioid crisis without a similar, but more lethal, infrastructure of deception and collusion by the healthcare industry and its own drug pushers. Addicts are, foremost, victims. And if anything, they’re victims more so than students are. They have far fewer supports, as Florida’s $53 million “nothing” attests. Students can and do at least expect their schools to protect them–something schools do exceptionally well: For all the headlines and the catastrophic mass shootings, schools remain more safe than street, home or job.

In sum, arguing that addicts are ultimately responsible for their fate is easy. It satisfies our rampant desires these days to bash and dehumanize. It does not stand up to scrutiny. At least not reasonable scrutiny. “Sadly,” a friend who spent a career as a law enforcement chief told me even as he despaired over the dichotomy, “the mugshot of a person in an overdose death is far less compelling versus the impact of a teenager or educator’s photo on the news.” I agree. But that speaks to our baser instincts. We don’t have to go so far as to appeal to the better angels of our nature. Evidence and reason are enough.

On Valentine’s Day, we had a school massacre. Yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day for the rest of the year, we’ll have an opioid massacre just as grim, just as deadly. Drug addicts are not less valuable as human beings than students. But for now, we’ve decided as a state that they are. And that’s impardonable no matter how you look at the issue.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him @PierreTristam. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.

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10 Responses for “Are Drug Addicts Less Valuable Than Students? Florida Says Yes, Wrongly.”

  1. Fredrick says:

    Thank you Pierre. Thank you….

    Your statement… “By every measure, there’s a much more serious and present problem with addicts. Are they less valuable than students? The Legislature answered this month with a big Yes.”… goes not only for the legislature but also goes to the media. Instead of trying to solve a problem they take a political stance on the gun issue. We have marches across the bridge because of the shooting, but nothing from the community about the shootings going on everyday in our inner cities, no march over the bridge for those kids being slaughtered by texting and driving, and no march over the bridge for those dying because of the opioid issue. Both the right and the left are wrong on this. Both sides need to stop with the fake tears and fake caring. But covering the news with what porn star slept with dear leader years ago, all the BS about collusion, ignoring the facts about our economy and what is working, Anti Trump 24/7. Let’s talk issues like this… let’s march and be angry about our kids dying…… Let’s be outraged about that.

  2. Really says:

    Not relative

  3. kathy roberts says:

    Most people are aware of the definition of addiction. (drugs, alcohol, etc.)
    If you choose to keep using any of the above regularly, I feel at this point, you have
    made the choice to be an addicted person. You have crossed the line of being
    responsible. It will affect many people around your life. It’s to bad parents and relatives
    often misuse alcohol & drugs……not setting a very good example for their little ones
    to grow up around; thereby, it goes on for generations. Bad choices = bad results.
    Remember the definition of insanity: ………(expecting different results.) It’s tough
    enough for some people to get regular mental healthcare/ I kind of resent the fact
    that addicted people expect governments to help them get straight and they often
    don’t stay straight. Other mental healthcare is required for victims of many abuses,
    or perhaps people struggling with serious, difficult illnesses….through no fault of their
    own. Who’s protesting for funding for them? The way it is, they are less valuable than opiod
    abusers. They’re less visible to society. The people that have caused problems on their
    own….with help of Dr. Pushers should be LESS valuable, after all, they didn’t value their
    own health or the sorrow it would cause those around them. If they choose to take the
    chance that they can OD; don’t stand in their way. Less addicts to worry about & maybe
    others will think before they continue to use OPIODS. Just my opinion!

  4. Stan says:

    Death sentence to drug dealers, case closed!!

  5. Mark says:

    Why do we place a value on anyone. Everybody is important. Everyone should help each other as much as possible. I know you aren’t very religious you may be spiritual but, what was Jesus’ second great command? These politicians are just trying to distribute the state’s limited resources to get their next vote. How many addicts vote? How many school kid’s parents vote? Guess where the money goes? I don’t think they value anyone more than anyone else, it’s all about the vote. Which keeps them in office and in power. Every elected office should have term limits. The root of the problem needs to be fixed!

  6. Scott Spradley says:

    On the economic side, the failure of the legislature to properly provide for addiction diagnosis and treatment results in a trickle up line item expense for law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and mental health outlets. Not to mention the effect on social welfare and the toll on the economy, generally. And this is with plenty of blame, as you point out, to Big Pharmacy and the medical providers in its gravy train. On the moral side, the concept of creating generations of unknowing addicts, whose sin was having a back pain requiring medical care, resulting in opioid addiction, is unconscionable. Yet, that’s where we are. 30 years ago, the perception of an alcoholic was the so called town drunk; the drug addict a thief with bad personal habits. Today, while there still is that, we have a new breed of addicts: teachers, students, lawyers, doctors and everybody in between, with their habits borne from accepted norms like social drinking and visits to the doctor for pain treatment. It is a fine mess and will take significant time, care and understanding to curb the economic and social causes at its root.

  7. mark101 says:

    “”In other words, as many people are dying from the opioid crisis in Florida every day “, yes they are and not just from drugs and guns, we still have a texting while driving problem that’s stuck in the state senate.

    But the value of life is your opinion Pierre. I have never read anywhere that a state goveremtn would rather devalue a persons life if it has to do with guns, drugs, texting, alcoholism cancer, heart disease, dementia, obesity to name a few. All lives matter. There is only so much money that can go around, what you say, so to cover all of these live changing events lets just tax the public to fund them them all, where does the tax stop should it be unlimited, who decides where the money goes, the tax payer if thats the case no money would get spent for prevention as 14 million tax payers would not be able to make up their mind. So a government has to make it for us rather we like it or not. Regarding drug use. Of all the years on the police force in Dallas, every drug user we stopped , arrested knew, they knew the drug they were taking were not legal be it crack, pain killers etc.. A person has a choice, to take an illegal drug or any drug , its a choice they make. And some pay for it with their lives. “”Addicts are, foremost, victims. “, yes they are they are victims of the bad choice they made in life. When a person buys or steals an illegal pain killer knowingly that its not prescribed for them, that’s a choice they made to feed their addiction or for a simple “high”. Yep there is a huge problem with opioids use and I really don’t see marchers walking over bridges or protesting in the capitals to help stop it. Why is that !, maybe there should be to get someones attention

  8. Dave says:

    Florida has become a PILL state, a drug use state, they used to be known for gun lobbyist, now the Pharmacutical lobbyist have taken over and are tearing apart your communites. Drug addicts are moms and sisters and brothers and dad’s, children and grand kids. No one asks to be addicted and most happen accidenttly after being injured. Death to drug dealers you say? Only if you consider the dealers the Big pharma companies and the representative that take their money

  9. smarterthanmost says:

    “On Valentine’s Day, we had a school massacre. Yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day for the rest of the year, we’ll have an opioid massacre just as grim, just as deadly. Drug addicts are not less valuable as human beings than students.”

    Yes, they are.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Drug addicts are not less valuable than students because they are students. They are also teachers, nurses, accountants, and almost every other profession out there. There are also plenty of drug addicts who are thieves, thugs, and career criminals, many of whom were regular hard-working people before they became consumed by their addiction. It seems like many people do not realize just how many functional addicts there are who manage to keep their problems secret while continuing to be productive members of society for a prolonged period of time.

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