The Poverty of Conservatism

 

A continuing crisis plagues Arkansas. Like a snake eating its tail, poverty, addiction and mental illness, teen pregnancy, sexual violence against women, and low educational achievement perpetuate themselves as a result of entrenched conservative thinking. Costs for addressing these problems continue to skyrocket while the state’s earning power lingers near the bottom.

Where do we cut the snake?

Arkansas ranks 48th out of 50 states in terms of poverty. In 2015, 19.1% percent of the state’s households—one fifth—have incomes below the federal poverty line of $24,250 for a family of four.[1]  For 2016, the state’s population of 2,887,337 included 550,508 people living in poverty.[2]

In a direct correlation to the poverty rate, the state ranks 39 out of 50 states in how well students are educated.[3] The state slips further down the scale for persons 25 years of age when considering the following factors: Only 84.8% graduate high school. Only 21.1% obtain a bachelor’s degree, a ranking that puts Arkansas at 48th out of 50. And only 7.5% obtain graduate degrees, a rank of 49 out of 50.[4]

We hover near the bottom at 46 in terms of mental illness in a compilation of 15 factors including all ages, availability of treatment, and addiction rates.[5] Between 2010 and 2014, over one third of teens in need of mental health treatment did not receive it while over 53% of adults did not. Only 20% of Arkansas residents with drug dependence and 10% with alcohol dependence received treatment.[6]

The state consistently ranks in the top five for teen pregnancies with up to 80 births per 1000 occurring among teen girls ages 15 to 19. Of these, 60% are white, 27% are black, and 11% are Hispanic. Counties with the highest rates included Sevier, Nevada, Arkansas, St. Francis, Mississippi, Jackson, and Randolph.[7]

According to a 2014 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures:

Children born to teen parents are more likely to enter the child welfare or juvenile justice systems and to become teen parents themselves. Every year, thousands of young Arkansans enter one or both systems. Research shows that, nationwide, the children of teen mothers are twice as likely to be placed in foster care as their peers born to slightly older parents. Sons of teen mothers are 2.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than the sons of mothers aged 20 to 21.[8]

The crisis becomes most apparent in the number of Arkansas children in foster care. From March 2015 to March 2016, the total number of available and in-use beds in foster homes increased from 2,801 to 3,306, but the number of foster children also increased, from 4,178 to 4,791. A 2016 report states that substance abuse by caregivers accounts for over 50% of children in foster care.[9]

Despite such high rates of teen pregnancies, many Arkansas school districts do not provide any sex education. Many others offer abstinence-only education including a virginity pledge (14 districts[10]), a ridiculous non-starter since census records show that over 52% of Arkansas teens are sexually active. Only seven school districts provide comprehensive sex education addressing contraceptives, sexually transmitted infection, abortion, and sexual orientation.

The Centers for Disease Control report that 37.4% to 38.5% of women in Arkansas experience at least one event of sexual violence during their lifetimes. These experiences include rape, sexual coercion, and/or unwanted sexual contact.[11] Among sexually active teens, 18% of females report acts of violence (being hit, slammed into something, or injured with an object or weapon on purpose by someone they were dating) and 16% reported being raped.[12]

Are Arkansas citizens somehow genetically predisposed to suffer these conditions? Is it something in the water? Or might the answer be found in the conservative mindset of a majority of Arkansas citizens?

Arkansas ranks 5th in the number of churches per capita. Seventy percent of adults define themselves as ‘highly religious’ with 65% saying they pray daily and 77% saying they believe in God with absolute certainty.[13] The predominant religion practiced in Arkansas is Southern Baptist, a conservative Protestant sect which believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Predictably, any push for sex education and contraceptives in public schools provokes conservative outrage. By religious thinking, unwanted pregnancies serve as punishment for illicit sex. The burden borne by women in unwanted pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare is God’s retaliation for the sins of Eve. As stated in Southern Baptist doctrine, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”[14] Prevention either through birth control or abortion upends the natural order of things as ordained by God.

The prevailing idea of conservative parents is that talking about sex and especially advocating for birth control of any kind creates a permissive attitude wherein teens are more likely to have sex. Data clearly dispute this belief. But the refusal to accept widely accepted evidence about the effectiveness of sex ed fits perfectly with the greater mindset of religious conservatives: willful ignorance about any and all information that doesn’t square with religious teachings.

Under the belief that addiction or non-marital sexual activity are moral failings, many efforts to address non-marital sex, sexual abuse or substance abuse rely on faith-based programs. Yet as noted by a counselor with twenty years in faith-based addiction treatment, “Often times, Christian programs view the secular approach to recovery as counterproductive to their message and will often discredit and even disregard medical or empirical based advice to addiction recovery.”[15]

While embracing some aspects of modern science and the advances of civilization such as automobiles, cell phones, DVRs, and medical progress, conservatives refuse to acknowledge other key findings of our times. Early religions strictly regulated a woman’s sexual activity out of concern for proving paternity and reducing conflict between competing males, among other things.  None of that matters today. Genetic testing quickly solves questions of paternity. But religion has become so institutionalized its practitioners can’t back up far enough to consider its origins or usefulness.

There’s a blind adherence to the tradition of making babies as the primary goal in life.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that teen pregnancy leads to lack of education which in turn leads to poor employment opportunities, or that a state with a high rate of poorly educated adults won’t attract many employers. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that poorly educated people with poor job opportunities are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol or suffer other forms of mental illness. Inadequate nutrition also plays a role, another cause and result of mental illness and poverty.

Further, an embattled position in poverty with subpar education leads people directly to unreasoned fear of Other—xenophobia and racism.

We have to start with the head of the snake. If we hold any hope of interrupting this vicious cycle, our state and national educational standards must require sex education. Such requirements must be imposed even in private, religious, and home school settings.

The requirements can’t stop there. All children must be required to learn the basics of science, history, political science, and other fields that serve as major elements in critical thinking about the modern world. While the state cannot dictate whether someone embraces any particular religion, we can dictate that our children are adequately prepared to make an informed choice about what to believe.

We cannot allow reactionary religious beliefs and tribalism to undo what civilization has achieved thus far.

The hue and cry against such reforms in education will be loud and long. State and federal legislators will be hard pressed to maintain a firm stance in the face of entrenched dogmatic beliefs. It will take true leaders to enact reforms in a time when leadership seems missing from public life. That means we must elect educated progressives who will carry the weight. The future of our nation depends on it.

~~~

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_poverty_rate

[2] https://talkpoverty.org/state-year-report/arkansas-2016-report/

[3] https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings/education  The

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_educational_attainment

[5] http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/issues/ranking-states

[6] https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/2015_Arkansas_BHBarometer.pdf

[7] “Say no to sex, most state districts teach,” Ginny Monk. Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Sunday September 24, 2017. Page 1.

[8] http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/teen-pregnancy-in-arkansas.aspx

[9] “Children in foster care in Arkansas reaches all-tine high.” Brian Fanney. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 22, 2016. Online access October 18, 2017

[10] “Say no to sex, most state districts teach”

[11] https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS-StateReportBook.pdf

[12] https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/facts-and-stats/national-and-state-data-sheets/adolescent-reproductive-health/arkansas/index.html

[13] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/29/how-religious-is-your-state/?state=arkansas

[14] http://www.sbc.net/aboutus/basicbeliefs.asp

[15] http://www.addictioncampuses.com/resources/addiction-campuses-blog/3-reasons-christian-rehabs-dont-work-according-to-a-pastor/

 

Advertisements

On Legalizing Drugs

“Americans must confront the reality that we are the market,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this past Thursday. “We Americans must own this problem.”[1]

Meeting with his Mexican counterpart, Tillerson acknowledged the role of American drug consumption in the proliferation of violent Mexican drug cartels. Citing the enormous demand for heroin, cocaine, and marijuana by Americans eager to get high, he argued that “drug trafficking had to be addressed as a ‘business model,” attacking cash flow, gun procurement, production and distribution.’”

Oh, please. You’d think that an administration that promised new approaches would make some tiny effort to think outside the prohibition box. But never once in Tillerson’s comments or those of his colleague Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly did a new idea appear. Never once did they hint at any effort to consider the success of other nations where various types of legalization and regulation have greatly reduced drug problems.

Take, for example, the success of states like Colorado now in its fifth year of marijuana legalization. Sales of the legal herb generated tax revenues exceeding $150 million between January and October 2016, $50 million of which the state is using to pump up its school systems.[2] Significant shares of this revenue stream will support improved drug treatment, drug education programs, and various projects targeting at-risk populations.[3] All these expenditures help increase education, job skills, and opportunity for persons who might otherwise fall victim to substance abuse.

Yes, Americans are the market. But instead of devoting resources to learning more about why Americans are uniquely prone to drug use and abuse, outdated policies continue to treat Americans as children to be scolded and punished. This attitude helps foster voters’ disgust with government.

Punishment has become increasingly more severe as subsequent generations of policymakers have embraced the government-as-nanny model. Any incremental step away from prohibition has come wrapped in controversy, implemented only in states where the voice of reason has a chance to be heard. Now with the Trump Administration and its appointment of Jeff Sessions as head of the Justice Department, we face the prospect of a full-bore return to the good old failed policies of the past.

Why is there no discussion of legalization and regulation? A modest approach might be similar to that of Portugal, who years ago legalized all drugs. “Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it – Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one.”[4]

While our nation’s drug warriors lament that such an approach would lead to higher use rates among the young and greater ease of availability would increase use rates, the fact in Portugal is that youth aren’t using more, adults are using slightly less, the rates of HIV and Hep C infection are down, and – hear this – hardly anyone dies of overdose.

Compare that to the alarming rise in U. S. deaths from opiates which more than tripled between 2010 and 2015.

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin.[5]

It’s way past time to face reality: people are going to use drugs. As far back as we can peer into human history, people have consumed everything from beer to cannabis to opium to hallucinogens. These practices are part of who we are, part of our religions, part of our ability to think outside or within ourselves.

Legitimate questions await answers about why various types of drug use throughout the millennia have transformed into today’s raging torrent of human suffering, but we’re not devoting any resources to answer those questions. Have the pressures of our fast-paced modern age forced us to seek refuge in intoxication? Is our multicultural society at fault in erasing old customs and rites of passage that could help us confront our existential crisis? Have the conveniences of our technological age created too much leisure time? What is the impact of a pharmaceutical industry’s marketing campaign flooding us with ads suggesting that the solution to every human ill is a drug?

We simply don’t know.

We should have learned a hundred years ago that criminalizing a popular intoxicant only creates bigger problems. Those who championed alcohol prohibition wanted to stamp out drunkenness. The blissful concept assumed that if alcohol were made illegal and its producers and users criminalized, everyone would simply stop drinking.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watching agents pour liquor into the … New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-123257)

Far from it. For their trouble in passing the Eighteenth Amendment, the “dry” crusaders found their cities overrun by heavily armed criminals fighting over territory. People flaunted the law, patronizing highly popular speakeasies where drinking served as joyous rebellion against overweening authority.[6] No matter how many barrels of liquor were spilled into public gutters, ever more enterprising moonshiners set up shop in hidden hollows.

It took just over fourteen years for prohibition fervor to sour. Amendment Twenty reversed it in 1933.

As Lincoln famously said in 1840:

“Prohibition… goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes… A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”[8]

Sadly, it seems little of this lesson actually sank in. Prohibition policies continue to frame our national approach to substance use and abuse, siphoning money into hit squads of heavily armed urban police and burgeoning prisons instead of desperately needed research and treatment of addiction.

Reality is that prohibition does nothing to reduce the market for drugs, but it does create a thriving underworld where dealers make huge profits. Stamp out every drug producer/dealer in the nation and tomorrow another crop will rise to the surface. Among the poor, especially those in marginal economies of Mexico and other Latin American countries, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks. Our inner city youth’s only hope of achieving the American dream seems to lie in the profitable drug trade. It’s about supply and demand.

The economics of prohibition can’t be overstated. Trade in illegal drugs generates so much profit that gangs can afford all the expensive weapons they might ever want. The spiraling up of urban warfare now involves military gear and tactics among the police and armor-piercing bullets in automatic weapons carried by adolescent criminals. The payoff comes in fancy cars, jewelry, and a lifestyle not achievable by legal means. Tax free.

A war on drugs is, after all, a war on our people, with rising collateral damage to our cities, institutions, and most of all, innocent bystanders.

Ironically, prohibition policies fail utterly to accomplish the goal of eradicating drug use/abuse. A smattering of evidence from states with legalized marijuana shows that teen use has dropped, suggesting that by removing the ‘forbidden fruit’ aspect of the drug, rebellions teens may lose interest. Meanwhile on the black market, no ID is required for purchase, and studies have found that teenagers can obtain marijuana more easily than beer. [9]

We the people have to decide what we’re going to do about this, because our so-called ‘leaders’ won’t make the first move. We have to decide and then make our voices heard. Compare:

  • a militarized police force versus friendly neighborhood police to protect and serve.
  • urban warfare versus reclaimed neighborhoods and inner cities
  • illegal search and seizure and loss of property even you’re not convicted of a crime versus government butting out of private lives
  • an overwhelmed judicial system versus our Constitutionally-guaranteed due process
  • half of federal prisoners in jail for drugs and the fact that drug offenses comprise the most serious offense for 16% of state prisoners versus an enormous reduction of prison population
  • our ever-growing investment in prisons versus a renewed investment in schools, mental health care, and state-of-the-art addiction treatment centers.
  • taxpayers struggling under drug war costs versus a regulated, taxed drug industry ensuring purity, restricting sales to adults only, and producing substantial new revenue streams
  • American citizens treated as children by government deciding what they can do in their personal lives versus each person responsible for his/her welfare. Want to be homeless, die in a ditch? Go ahead. Ask for help, we’ll be there for you.
  • overdose of drugs like heroin often resulting from zero information about purity or strength versus a regulated market that includes labeling for purity and precautions about use.

There are no upsides to the drug war. By any tally, this approach has been an enormous policy fiasco partly responsible for the decline of inner cities and disrespect for government in general. Government has never bothered to assess the effectiveness of its policies. No one can cite data showing that getting tough on drug traders and users has reduced supply or demand.

Indeed, judging by the rhetoric of our newest batch of politicos and the news flowing to our ears and eyes on a daily basis, we can say with certainty that drug prohibition continues to be an abysmal failure.

~~~

[1] http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-tillerson-puts-onus-of-drug-trafficking-1495131274-htmlstory.html

[2] http://fortune.com/2016/12/13/colorado-billion-legal-marijuana-sales/

[3] https://leg.colorado.gov/sites/default/files/15-10_distribution_of_marijuana_tax_revenue_issue_brief_1.pdf

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/05/why-hardly-anyone-dies-from-a-drug-overdose-in-portugal/

[5] http://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_in_the_United_States

[7] http://www.autofoundry.com/293/the-best-moonshine-cars-of-all-time/

[8] http://www.americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44807229.pdf

[9] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/teens-pot-easier-to-buy-than-beer/

Frankenpot

frankenpot-scientist-final

Last night PBS NewsHour featured a story about the new cannabis derivatives. Mostly it focused on 99% pure THC and how dangerous it is. How it can be addictive. How it can be abused.

This is what we do, we humans. We take something that’s pretty much perfect the way Nature makes it then we fuck it up. Gild the lily.

I predicted this, actually. Not that I’m taking in satisfaction in seeing my prediction come true.

The push behind 99% pure THC isn’t from pot heads. It’s from pharmaceutical companies. It’s from doctors who want to prescribe an exact dose of some chemical that they think will provide x-result. It’s from legislators whose balls shrink when facing a question of whether to legalize cannabis for people to use as they see fit—because the culture war is still going on.

You know, that war where the bulk of an entire generation smoked weed and saw truth no one wanted them to see. That truth about how America talks out of both sides of its mouth—oh, we’re a Christian nation. Oh, let’s go to war. Let’s segregate blacks. Let’s be complete and utter jackasses to anyone not exactly like us.

Weed opened a generation’s eyes to chemicals poisoning our food, air, and water, to the worship of wealth, to our rights to our bodies and our lives, our innate morality. In the epiphany of getting high with friends, we saw love was the answer. Peace was the answer.

We said fuck off to the corporations and war machine and went back to the land.

They didn’t take it lying down. They waded into our pot parties with batons, guns, and arrest warrants. Some of us stuck it out. We grew weed in ditches and creek banks. They came with their helicopters and tracking dogs. We grew weed in spare bedrooms and closets. They came with their infrared cameras.

Then we started the real work—political work, outing ourselves as advocates for cannabis. The result is currently 26 states with laws allowing medical use and a growing tide of states allowing recreational use.

In response, the Establishment has said, oh, grow your own? Smoking weed? That can’t possibly be allowed. It’s not real medicine. Real medicine comes in pills and needles that doctors can prescribe in exact dosage because, as we all know, people don’t know shit about what they need. They can’t tell if one puff is enough. Or three.

This is how it works. You take a perfect God-given plant and make it dangerous. This arrogant strategy has worked with just about every magical plant our ancestors relied on. Only with our clever modern techniques of science, we have made them deadly. Opium – a natural anesthetic used as far back as history takes us. Useful, relatively safe. But let’s improve that, because doctors, science, politicians. Let’s make morphine.

Decades pass. Oh, wait, morphine is addictive. Let’s fix that—let’s make heroin.

Decades pass. Oh wait, heroin is addictive even worse than morphine. Let’s make opiate clones, you know, OxyContin and Oxycodone and all that.

Uh-huh. How’s that working out?

It happened to coca leaf. A simple leaf. Stuff a few in between your back teeth and your cheek and let it work while you hike up the Andes and hoe your potato crop. Then the geniuses got ahold of it. Cocaine! Wonderful—let’s put it in snake-oil tonics and feel-good drinks so we can make money.

Then, no, wait, people get hooked on this feel good stuff. Let’s make it more scientific. Voila! We have amphetamine, methamphetamine, and Adderall we hand out to our kids like candy. Gee, anyone have any idea how we got so many people addicted to meth?

Now we’re on the same road with cannabis. Not enough to take what we’ve been given. No, we’ve got to meddle, ‘improve,’ synthesize and concentrate. Satisfy the corporate agenda to create something they can profit from. Take away a person’s right to grow his own poppy, his own cannabis alongside the tomatoes and peppers. Separate him from his instincts toward health and well-being and put him in the hands of doctors and pills.

It’s always about the money.

And about taking personal responsibility away from individuals.

The cycle of harmful effects from this new Frankenpot is just beginning.  But the harmful effect of this mindset should be familiar by now. It screams to us from our militarized police forces and our overcrowded prisons, from the violent underworld spawned by prohibition, from the desperate alleyways where homeless addicts hide.

What happens when you gild a lily?

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” William Shakespeare‘s 1595 play King John, iv.2

The lily dies.

Straining on a Gnat

blob

 

In light of a recent update to federal regulation of commercial chemicals, pointed questions arise about laws governing controlled substances. Consider last week’s announcement of funding for a study of synthetic pot. The press release from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences emphasized the importance of knowing ‘what is safe.’ A federal grant of $2.7 million will fund research into K2 and Spice, a study to be led by Paul Prather, professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

“People who smoke K2 and Spice are basically playing Russian roulette,” Prather warned. “You’re injecting this compound that has literally never been tested.”

I had to laugh out loud. What are K2 and Spice compared to the 84,000 commercially used chemicals that have never been tested? What logic lies behind aggressive policing of intoxicants that a limited percentage of the population might voluntarily use periodically and the simultaneous abject failure to test chemicals that the entire population unwittingly touches, ingests, and inhales on a daily basis? Everything from dryer sheets to shampoo to spray sanitizers is loaded with mystery chemicals.

This lunacy fits perfectly with the hit-or-miss tradition of government policies rife with misinformation, driven by profiteering, and shrouded in hysteria and secret agendas instead of rational analysis of fact.

People who use K2 and Spice seek a legal alternative to marijuana.  Unlike these modern synthetics, however, marijuana has been in use as a medicine and intoxicant since pre-history. Archaeological evidence points to cannabis use in ancient China, ancient India, ancient Egypt, and by the Scythians contemporary to ancient Greece. If the criteria is ‘what is safe,’ then marijuana has long since exceeded the requirement.

If public policy were based on thoughtful analysis, marijuana would be legally sold like alcohol and this $2.7 million appropriated to study K2 would be spent on examination of why the U. S. has a higher rate of drug use and abuse than any other nation on earth (which goes hand in hand with our skyrocketing prison population).[1] The proportion of people in the United States who have used cocaine at some time during their lives is higher—by a factor of four—than in 16 other nations surveyed by the World Health Organization (WHO). The United States also leads in lifetime use of cannabis and tobacco.[2]

There’s a common misconception that drug laws are based on comprehensive scientific conclusions about the dangers of those drugs. Government funding to study drugs props up the fiction that our laws are based on ‘what is safe.’ This fantasy has been promoted by those with vested interests or a social agenda in mind. Drug laws have turned our local police departments into militaristic hit squads. Prisons are a growth industry. Selective enforcement of drug laws against immigrants, racial groups, the counter culture, and inner city poor places these potentially troublesome groups under government control.

Drug laws do nothing to stop addiction.

Consider the cautionary tale now unfolding about OxyContin. Blessed with extensive clinical testing and FDA approval, Oxy has been the darling of pain relief since the 1990s. Similarly, a century earlier Bayer Pharmaceutical introduced a new wonder drug named heroin.[3] “The sales pitch that created an instant market to American doctors and their morphine addicted patients was that heroin was a ‘safe, non-addictive’ substitute for morphine.”[4]

Now that OxyContin addiction rates have soared, a predictable crackdown has restricted supply. The result is a shift from oxy to black market heroin and rising overdose rates.

Drug warriors and doctors alike seem to be asking the wrong questions.

The more obvious right question: Why does the U.S. lead the world in substance abuse?

The less obvious: What role does our daily cocktail of manmade chemicals play in our mental and physical health, including addiction?

If the health and welfare of our citizenry were the force guiding federal and state policy, then why has it taken until June of this year for the federal government to authorize new provisions in the nation’s Toxic Substances Control Act? Originally passed in 1976, the TSCA allowed all 62,000 chemicals that were in commerce before that year to stay on the market unless the Environmental Protection Agency later found that they posed an “unreasonable risk.”

Now over 84,000 untested chemicals are in commercial use. In the intervening forty years, the EPA has required testing of only 250 chemicals and banned only nine, among them dioxin and hexavalent chromium. The new rules impose a mandatory requirement for the EPA to evaluate tens of thousands of in-use chemicals and establish risk-based safety standards along with requiring public transparency for chemical information. [5]

A day late and a dollar short. For decades, activists have pushed for laws more like those in Europe where substances generally can’t go to market unless manufacturers can provide data showing they’re safe.[6] Clearly we’ve got this backwards.

Before you start feeling reassured by this recent change in the U.S. regulation of chemicals, please note that

“The new law requires EPA to test tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals currently on the market, and the roughly 2,000 new chemicals introduced each year, but quite slowly. The EPA will review a minimum of 20 chemicals at a time, and each has a seven-year deadline. Industry may then have five years to comply after a new rule is made. At that pace it could take centuries for the agency to finish its review.”[7]

One gaping hole in our official ‘what is safe’ question is whether any of these chemicals might increase the risk of addiction. For example, the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) is found in many products, including canned foods, plastics, and dental sealants, and is similar in structure to the hormone estrogen. Ask any woman whether hormones affect mood and attitude. Or any man, for that matter. Studies have linked BPA exposure with many health problems including obesity, early puberty, and miscarriage. Whether levels of BPA in the environment are harmful to people is still being studied.

Other chemical pollutants may affect mood, impair reproduction, and trigger cancer and other disease. Consider just one particular chemical, tributyltin, which is used as a wood preservative and glass coating among other things. In animal studies, it was found that exposure to tributyltin increased the number of fat cells, thus possibly setting into motion a genetic propensity at birth for obesity.  Some chemicals have been found to cause male frogs to become female.  It’s a long and terrifying list.

84,000.

Admittedly other factors in American life influence the rates of intoxicant abuse. As a multi-cultural society, we have few ties that bind. What are our rituals that serve as guideposts, rites of passage that help define a young person’s purpose or meaning? What shortcomings in Western medicine lead us to treat an ailment’s symptoms rather than dig out the cause? What ignorance and greed allows drug companies to saturate our media with ads that condition us to seek a pill for every ill?

Simultaneously, chemicals have become the modern savior for everything from bad odors to agriculture. We are routinely exposed to a smorgasbord of substances which may trigger our need for drugs or at least compromise us in myriad ways we hardly understand. While government awards contracts to study K2 which last year caused fifteen people to lose their lives, cause of death data from 2013 finds 29,000 deaths from alcohol, 18,893 deaths from prescription drugs, and 17,000 from all illegal drugs combined.

We can rest assured K2 will be proven harmful. Then what? Build more prisons?

Even those numbers pale in comparison to data from 2006 showing workers in chemical industries suffer more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths annually related to chemical exposures. Workplace chemical exposures have been linked to cancers and other lung, kidney, skin, heart, stomach, brain, nerve, and reproductive diseases.

Consider the following abstract for a 2008 study by the National Institutes of Health:

“While proper brain function requires the complex interaction of chemicals perpetually occupied in purposeful biochemistry, it is well established that certain toxic substances have the potential to disrupt normal brain physiology and to impair neurological homeostasis. As well as headache, cognitive dysfunction, memory disturbance, and other neurological signs and symptoms, disruption of brain function may also manifest as subtle or overt alteration in thoughts, moods, or behaviors. Over the last four decades, there has been the unprecedented development and release of a swelling repertoire of potentially toxic chemicals which have the capability to inflict brain compromise.

“Although the ability of xenobiotics to induce clinical illness is well established, the expanding public health problem of widespread toxicant exposure in the general population is a relatively new phenomenon that has spawned escalating concern. The emerging area of clinical care involving the assessment and management of accrued toxic substances such as heavy metals, pesticides, plasticizers and other endocrine disrupting or neurotoxic compounds has not been fully appreciated by the medical community and has yet to be incorporated into the clinical practice of many consultants or primary care practitioners.”[8]

That pretty well says it all.

~~~ 

[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-leads-the-world-in-illegal-drug-use/

[2] https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2009/11/united-states-ranks-first-in-lifetime-use-three-drugs

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroin

[4] http://www.narconon.org/drug-information/heroin-history.html

[5] https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/frank-r-lautenberg-chemical-safety-21st-century-act

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/03/19/our-broken-congresss-latest-effort-to-fix-our-broken-toxic-chemicals-law/

[7] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/it-could-take-centuries-for-epa-to-test-all-the-unregulated-chemicals-under-a-new-landmark-bill/

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18621076

 

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/131023758/

Newborn Abuse — the latest atrocity in our war on drugs

gallery_nrm_1416863230-tiffany

Another story of government overreach.

In 2003, the federal government began requiring states to develop strategies to deal with drug-dependent newborns. This came in response to an increasing number of babies born with opioid dependence. The government’s concern directly reflects the rise in opioid addiction nationwide.

“The number of prescriptions for opioids (hydrocodone and oxycodone products) have escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013, with the United States their biggest consumer globally, accounting for almost 100 percent of the world total for hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and 81 percent for oxycodone (e.g., Percocet).”[1] Most recently, tightening availability of prescription opioids has shifted abusers to heroin, an early pharmaceutical derived from the opium poppy and grandfather of the modern ‘codone’ products. Heroin is cheaper and in most cases more available than the pharmaceuticals.

No matter what form, opioids pose a real threat of addiction for many users. According to Wikipedia, “opioid addiction and opioid dependence, sometimes classified together as an opioid use disorder, are medical conditions characterized by the compulsive use of opioids (e.g., morphineheroincodeine, oxycodonehydrocodone, etc.) in spite of consequences of continued use and the withdrawal syndrome that occurs when opioid use stops … The opioid dependence-withdrawal syndrome involves both psychological dependence and marked physical dependence upon opioid compounds. Opioid use disorders resulted in 51,000 deaths in 2013 up from 18,000 deaths in 1990.”[2]

It’s not like opioid-dependent pregnant women don’t know they’re sharing their addiction with their fetus. But like all addicts, these women are severely challenged in overcoming their need for the drug not only because of the nature of the drug but also because whatever led them to abuse drugs in the first place has not been addressed. After all, not everyone legitimately prescribed opiate drugs becomes an addict.

Within one to three days after birth, infants born addicted to opioids suffer neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This withdrawal experience may require doctors to administer slowly decreasing doses of morphine or methadone to ease the process. Providing medical protocols to deal with this condition was the intent of the federal law.

Despite this initial specific focus on opioid withdrawal among newborns, states have begun implementing laws that target mothers who test positive for any illegal drug use. The National Institutes of Health agree that “Alcohol and other drugs used during pregnancy can also cause problems in the baby. Babies of mothers who use other addictive drugs (nicotine, amphetamines, barbiturates, cocaine, marijuana) may have long-term problems. However, there is no clear evidence of a neonatal abstinence syndrome for these drugs.”[3]

Notably, millions of American women have used and continue to use alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, and/or prescription drugs during pregnancy with no known ill effect to their offspring. Yet in many states, zealous, usually conservative lawmakers have seized on the situation as yet another way to attack illegal drug use. Newborns and mothers are profiled and drug tested without consent. Infants are separated from their mothers. Mothers are sent to jail.

The State of Arkansas is one of eighteen states which requires health care professionals to profile mothers and newborns to determine who should be drug tested. In 2014, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to pass a law allowing women to be charged with a crime if their babies are born with symptoms of drug withdrawal. Other states, such as Alabama and South Carolina, use interpretations of existing laws to prosecute pregnant women who use drugs.[4]

The potential penalties under Alabama law are especially stiff: one to 10 years in prison if a baby is exposed but suffers no ill effects; 10 to 20 years if a baby shows signs of exposure or harm; and 10 to 99 years if a baby dies.[5]

There is no known law which requires prosecution of fathers for their use of any substance which might have contributed to a newborn’s impairment.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines recommend that in cases where substance abuse is suspected, doctors use a separate form to seek consent for drug testing; women can opt out simply by not signing. These guidelines are widely ignored. In Arkansas, for example, if a health care provider or allied professional such as a social worker believe an infant might have been exposed to illegal substances in utero, a claim of probable cause meets the criteria of child abuse and federal laws protecting privacy don’t apply. Mothers are tested without consent and the case is turned over to authorities.

Such professionals employ a widely varying and undocumented set of criteria to identify newborns and mothers to be tested. Conspicuous symptoms such as premature delivery, low birth weight, seizures, fever, hyperactive reflexes, or rapid breathing are among the more obvious reasons to test the newborn. Yet hospitals also single out mothers who obtained little or no prenatal care even though this unfairly targets the poor or those who live far from medical facilities.

Persons who fit certain cultural stereotypes may also be at risk of greater scrutiny: compare the likelihood for suspicion of drug use in a young woman with dreadlocks and reeking of patchouli compared to that of a well-to-do woman with no counterculture identifiers. Racial profiling is also widespread in these cases as is suspicion of women who have engaged a midwife.

Aside from all the outrages involved in these policies, the fact is that they close the barn door after the horses are out. Once the child is born, whatever fetal harm might have occurred is already done. The rational approach would recognize that a few newborns may need intervention treatment and their mothers need access to counseling. End of story.

Instead, state lawmakers take whatever injury might have occurred to a fetus and explode that into the worst case scenario for the newborn infant by separating it from the mother—no cuddling at the breast for milk (one of NIH’s recommended treatments of NAS is breastfeeding), no mother’s heartbeat, no familiar voices. If we wanted to ensure that an already-challenged newborn suffer the greatest possible harm, we can rest assured that arrest of the mother fits the bill.

[I concede that in a very few cases, the mother’s behavior is so out of control that the infant is better off not in her custody. Very few.]

Legislators eager to punish mothers ignore the fact that the damage is already done. They justify punitive action in the belief that punishment serves as a deterrent. But—point of fact—if threat of punishment served as a deterrent, no one would use illegal drugs.

Marijuana use is not known to result in birth defects or NAS. One study even shows benefits to infants born to marijuana-using mothers.[6], [7] But according to a 12/18/15 report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, of the 970 new Arkansas mothers referred to social services in 2014, 65% were for marijuana use.

Lawmakers also skim past the obvious hypocrisy in screening mothers only for illegal drugs when fetal alcohol syndrome has long been identified as a common cause of birth defects. Many of the distress symptoms in newborns can also result from the mother’s use of tobacco.

If punishment for theorized harm to the child is the state’s objective, then why aren’t alcohol and tobacco included in the screening? Why aren’t those mothers arrested and separated from the child?

I’ll tell you why. Because a driving purpose behind such laws is to punish mothers for illegal drug use.

If the real goal is to reduce the number of impaired newborns, a bureaucracy will need to be established which monitors all women of childbearing age with monthly testing for evidence of pregnancy. Once pregnant, women would be placed on 24-hour watch to ensure proper nutrition and adequate exercise. Prospective parents will undergo genetic testing  and embryos will be screened for congenital defects and aborted when appropriate. Controlled environments for gestating women will need to eliminate potential stressors such as spousal abuse and financial troubles. Any possibly harmful substances such as alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs would not be allowed.

Ah, brave new world with our Alphas and Epsilons.[8]

There’s nothing wrong with states supporting protocols by which medical professionals can more adequately address NAS in compromised newborns. But compromised newborns should not be used to indict the mothers for real or imagined crimes. There’s no proof that illegal substance abuse alone is the cause of a particular newborn’s problems. A majority of distressed and/or premature newborns come from poor mothers and/or mother who use alcohol and nicotine and/or mothers who don’t exercise or eat properly.

Keep in mind there’s no scientific evidence that an addicted newborn suffers subsequent permanent damage.[9], [10]

The rush to prosecute illegal substance-using mothers of newborns does not assure that their future pregnancies will produce perfect children. Nor, in most cases, does it provide any benefit to the child.

Are women now fetus delivery systems answerable to the state?

Proactive encouragement toward good health and responsible behavior is as far as a free society can go to ensure the best possible outcome in any life pursuit of its citizenry, including parenthood. This approach involves all those abhorrent liberal ideas like sex education in the public schools and easy access to birth control. Access to abortion. Clean air and water. Greater public understanding of proper nutrition. Excellent education. Good job training and job opportunities. Community clinics with affordable, high quality mental and physical health care.

If we want to decrease the American trend toward ever greater substance abuse, we need to take immediate steps to stop commercial advertising of prescription drugs. There is not and never will be a magic pill for most of life’s troubles even if these ads insinuate otherwise.

We need to reorient our medical community toward prevention instead of pharmaceuticals.

We need to devote more resources toward understanding the factors that contribute to substance abuse and addiction and address these problems at their roots: disenfranchisement, poverty, lack of opportunity, low self-worth, racism, mental illness.

Have we done this before rushing to prosecute mothers?

No.

 

Learn more and offer your help at http://www.advocatesforpregnantwomen.org/ 

[1] http://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2015/americas-addiction-to-opioids-heroin-prescription-drug-abuse

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opioid_addiction_and_dependence

[3] https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007313.htm

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pregnant-drugs-crime_5692ea9ee4b0cad15e653dd0?section=politics

[5] http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2015/09/covert_drug_tests_child_abuse.html

[6] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1957518

[7] http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/medical/can-babies.htm

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_New_World

[9] http://healthland.time.com/2012/05/01/number-of-babies-born-suffering-drug-withdrawal-triples/

[10] http://www.adoptivefamiliescircle.com/groups/topic/Baby_born_opiate_addicted….terrified/