No one who lives in New Mexico can be surprised to learn the state has a problem with drug and alcohol abuse. Still, the numbers are staggering and growing worse.
A recent report to the Legislative Finance Committee estimated more than 43,000 New Mexicans have died because of drugs and alcohol over the last 30 years.
The problem seems to be getting worse, with drug overdose and alcohol-related deaths reaching an all-time high in 2020 — and that’s despite the state tripling the dollars spent on substance abuse treatment since 2014.
An increase in fentanyl and methamphetamine is making the fight against substance abuse more difficult. These drugs are claiming more lives than overdoses because of heroin or prescription opioids.
Last year, fentanyl and methamphetamine contributed to 78 percent of drug overdose deaths in the state. In 2020, 1,770 people died from alcohol-related causes and 766 from drug overdoses. The problem is nothing new although the report also notes that some of the deaths can be attributed to the difficulty of life during a pandemic..
Just consider these numbers. Drug overdose deaths are up 572 percent since 1990 and alcohol-related deaths by 165 percent. In 2019, the last year for which federal data is available, New Mexico’s overdose death was 40 percent higher than the national rate.
The problem is deeply rooted.
Treatment is key — that’s why increased spending is important. People cannot get well if they cannot get well without assistance. Often, that will mean leaving home and loved ones and going to treatment in a facility with doctors, counseling and other services. Separating the addict from the substances that cause harm is essential, as is easing the drug user or drinker back into society.
But stopping addiction before it takes hold also is important, legislators learned during a Legislative Finance Committee hearing last week. Evidenced-based prevention programs must start early — efforts more sophisticated than the “Just Say No” slogan from the 1980s. Young people who are shown the ill effects of early drinking or experimenting with drugs can make it to young adulthood and beyond without the burden of addiction.
Because so many young users are self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, having enough mental health resources — in schools, if necessary — can help adolescents get help before they get hooked.
Other interventions can occur in the criminal justice system, where catching addicts early can prevent their lives spiraling out of control.
Detoxing in a county jail cell doesn’t help the addict — whether the craving is drugs or alcohol — stay sober in the long run. But diverting addicts to treatment and providing services after release from jail or prison can encourage both a sober and useful lifestyle. Such programs also reduce crime. Not an addict? Then you’re not stealing to buy drugs.
All of this demands a solid system of behavioral health care, something the state still is rebuilding after the devastation caused during the Martinez administration. Focus has to be placed on training new providers, increasing the behavioral health network and ensuring all have access to services.
The report provides this guidance: Intervene early and focus on longterm solutions, all while building treatment capacity in the present. Do that, and fewer people will suffer and die, and all of society will be richer as a result.