5 Since the dawn of time, we human beings have changed everything we encounter. When we got tired of gathering berries, we chopped down trees and cultivated land for our food. When we got cold and tired of eating raw food, we harnessed fire to cook and to warm ourselves. When living in caves got old, we learned to create structures for shelter.
We also figured out how to harness our own minds, developing frameworks to understand our world through religion and philosophy. Turns out we also found ways to change the way we experience our world using what the DuPont company dubbed “better living through chemistry.”

Yes, we figured out how to alter our minds through all sorts of compounds, including caffeine, plants, alcohol and more recently, chemical compounds, including prescription drugs.
Many scientists believe that early agricultural societies used alcohol and mind-altering plants in ceremonial rites and perhaps recreationally, but our real troubles with various substances began millennia later.
They have reached five-alarm fire proportions now, and the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying stress have both contributed to and placed a spotlight on American substance abuse.

Let’s look at alcohol first.

Apparently, we have been drinking up a storm. A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that during the 20 years between 1999 and 2019, alcohol related deaths rose 3.6%, but in 2020 alone the death rate soared a breathtaking 25%! Alcohol related deaths went up across the board — men and women and in every ethnic and racial group.

Young adults, 25 to 44, had the greatest increase at 40%. In 2020, alcohol related deaths zoomed past the rate of increase for all other causes, including COVID-19.

Then there are preventable drug overdose deaths, more than 100,000 of them over the last year, up nearly 50% since the start of the pandemic and up an astounding 649% since 1999.

The majority of these deaths are caused by opioids, both prescription and illicit, with the fastest growing lethal category being synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and like substances.
Methamphetamines also cause preventable overdoses, but at much lower rates. Most deaths occur in the 25 to 34 age group, with 7 out of 10 deaths involving men, although the death rate for women is rising.

These sterile numbers, grim as they are, represent human beings who lost their lives to substances we humans created and that many of us use on a regular basis. These souls lost left people who loved them and who continue to suffer. My guess is that everyone reading this knows someone affected by alcohol and/or drug abuse.

Minds far greater than mine struggle to address the dramatic increases in alcohol related and preventable drug overdose deaths, and I pray they succeed — and soon. Their causes are myriad and vastly complex.

Among them in my mind is turning alcohol into forbidden fruit. Human history tells us that we are not going to get rid of it, so we should teach people, especially young folks, how to use it responsibly. It makes no sense to tie our nation’s drinking age to federal highway funding, forcing young people to wait to have a beer until they are 21, though they can get married, vote, get a loan and give their lives for their nation at 18.

Our medical establishment, pharmaceutical companies and government have failed us on the opioid issue. Big business pushed the drugs, physicians joined in, and Congress OK’d ubiquitous direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising which now tortures us every hour of the day. Only one other nation, New Zealand, allows this ugly practice.

Our nation is overdue for soul-searching about these skyrocketing death rates, both individually and collectively.

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