Evidence shows problems here

Published 12:19 am Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First in a series

An alcoholic can describe in vivid detail the seductiveness of the first drink and the draw that keeps them picking up a glass.

A drug user never stops searching for the pinnacle of a high.

They are addicts, and there is no way of knowing just how many of them are living in Covington County.

To shed light on this nationwide problem, September has been designated as “National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month.”

“Addiction is a biological, pathological process that alters how the brain functions,” said Donna Beasley, a 20-year veteran substance abuse director with the South Central Alabama Mental Health Board, located at the Montezuma Complex on Academy Drive in Andalusia. The facility offers two treatment options for addicts – intensive out-patient rehabilitation counseling, which is available to the general public, and an in-patient rehabilitation program, where entry is court-mandated.

“Only an addict can tell you why they use,” she said. “Whatever their drug of choice, it draws them in and holds on to them until they learn to let it go.”

The most recent data available from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that the number of meth users nationally has increased from 314,000 in 2008 to 502,000 in 2009, and the non-medical use of prescription drugs rose from 2.5 percent of the population to 2.8 percent in that same period.

Prescription drugs are the second most commonly abused category of drugs, behind marijuana and ahead of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs. The National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly 20 percent of people in the United States have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons. To them, narcotic painkillers like OxyContin or Vicodin, sedatives and tranquilizers like Xanax or Valium, and stimulants like Dexedrine, Adderall or Ritalin are things they can’t live without – highly addictive and detrimental to lives. Alcohol produces the same scenario for the estimated 14 million people – or 7.4 percent of the adult population in the U.S. – who are addicted it or abuse alcohol.

“The average person takes a prescription pill for pain, and it will probably knock them out,” Beasley said. “A drug user takes a pill, and it has the opposite effect. They experience a euphoric high.

“Prolonged drug use changes the brain in fundamental and long-lasting ways,” she said. “These long-lasting changes are a major component of the addiction itself. It is as though there is a figurative ‘switch’ in the brain that ‘flips’ at some point during an individual’s drug use.

“The point at which this ‘flip’ occurs varies from individual to individual, but the effect of this change is the transformation of a drug abuser to a drug addict,” she said.

Local arrest numbers show that between January 2009 and January 2010, agents with the 22nd Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force made 239 arrests. Of those, 87 – or 36 percent – were attributed to cases involving prescription pills; 62 cases – or 26 percent – involved methamphetamine use; and the remaining 90 cases – or 38 percent – included a variety of other offenses such as cocaine and marijuana use, chemical endangerment of a child, trafficking, driving while under the influence, prescription forgery, theft, etc.

And results of local Pride surveys – used by 8,000 school systems across the country to identify levels of drug use – show that people h ere start experimenting young. The most recent survey of the county’s high school students shows that in one school system (only one of three has responded to the newspapers’ request for updated results), 35.5 percent of high school seniors had used marijuana in the past year; 72.6 percent had used alcohol, and 56.5 percent had used tobacco. The same students responded that tobacco and alcohol are “very easy to get” (66.1 percent), while 45.2 percent said marijuana is “very easy to get. In a typical year, the results are very similar in each of the county’s three systems.

Over the years, the increasing availability of drugs has led to an ever-growing number of addicts, Beasley said.

Among the users, there is no rhyme or reason to the pattern of abuse and no specific age group or ethnicity; however, there is one simple denominator – the need to use.

Coming tomorrow: A recovering alcoholic explains his journey from the “darkness” of alcohol and into the “light of the living.”