Thursday, April 3, 2008

Another Drug Scourge in Rural America

Yesterday's New York Times featured a story titled, "A Grim Tradition, and a Long Struggle to End It," about drug-related deaths in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico (population 40K). The county has the highest per capita rate of deaths from drug overdoses in the country, at 42.5 per 100,000, compared to 7.3 across the nation. The good news is that state and local officials have instituted a needle-exchange program and are making available Narcan, an anti-overdose drug, to addicts and their families. A new state law (the only one of its kind in the country) limits the ability of police to arrest users who call 911 in order to save a companion who is over-dosing.

Journalist Eric Eckholm describes the county as "pastoral," a word often associated with rural places -- which most of the county is. And my impression when I passed through there five years ago was that it is, in fact, pastoral -- at least in parts. (One town there, Chimayo, is known for its Catholic shrine, where pilgrims flock for healing.) But the area also bears the scars of lack of opportunity and intergenerational poverty. Like many rural areas in New Mexico and elsewhere, it is economically depressed -- this in spite of its close proximity to popular tourist destinations like Santa Fe (to the South) and Taos (to the West), and to the relatively affluent Los Alamos National Laboratory area.

I applaud New Mexico's effort at "harm reduction," especially when intensified law enforcement and a flurry of new treatment programs have failed. But I remain deeply troubled at the shocking incidence of drug abuse in rural America -- including the abuse of prescription drugs, which is also mentioned in this story. I wonder when wide-scale federal efforts and resources will be brought to bear on this scourge, which -- like other rural problems -- remains largely out of sight, out of mind, for most Americans.

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