Drugs

How the Death of Whitney Houston, and Countless Others, Could Have Been Prevented

Drug poisoning is now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, but the government is ignoring crucial ways to change that tragic fact.

Photo Credit: Neno843 at Flickr.

 I don’t just get sad when I hear about people dying from a suspected accidental drug overdose – I get angry. And frustrated.  It never takes long before everyone has an opinion about what should have been done differently. As someone who works to help prevent overdose deaths, I thought carefully before saying anything publicly about the death of Whitney Houston and its alleged connection to prescription drug overdose. Some rushed to immediately give a public “tisk tisk” about the tragedy of drug addiction, while others, like drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, speaking with CBS News about Houston’s untimely death, referred to it as a “teachable moment." Ah, the “teachable moment” message. I knew it would surface eventually. It always gets trotted out when someone famous dies of a drug overdose. 

Kerlikowske gets a lot of things right – like when he said in the same interview that many families struggle with these issues and how important it is to raise awareness about the role prescription drugs are now playing in America’s escalating overdose crisis. But he misses an enormous opportunity by failing to specify what Americans can teach or learn from Houston’s alleged overdose.

He could have talked about the importance of providing basic information about how to prevent, recognize and respond to an overdose at places like high schools, colleges, drug treatment facilities and homeless shelters. He could have said that people should never mix alcohol with sedatives because it can significantly increase the possibility of an accidental, or even fatal, overdose. 

He could have taught us how to recognize warning signs of an overdose in progress, like lips and nail beds turning blue, or very slow or labored breath. He could have explained that the chances of surviving an overdose, like those of surviving a heart attack, depend greatly on how fast one receives medical assistance. And he could havementioned  that states like New York, Illinois, New Mexico, Connecticut and Washington have recently passed “911 Good Samaritan” laws to encourage people to immediately call 911 without fear of arrest and prosecution for minor drug law violations.

At the very least, he could have said that – contrary to popular belief – it’s not teenagers who die from drug overdose in the greatest numbers, but their parents. People in their 40s and 50s are more likely to die from an accidental drug overdose than adolescents. Parents are constantly being cautioned these days to “lock up your medicine cabinets,” as a way to reduce the likelihood of potentially dangerous drugs getting into young hands. But do parents themselves realize their own risks if they improperly use those same drugs? Kerlikowske could have mentioned that, as just one “teachable moment” resulting from the premature death of 48 year old Whitney Houston. 

My first reaction to the news of Houston’s death was to wonder if anyone ever taught her the basics of how-to-use-drugs-and-not-die.  Essentially, we’re willing to let people die because we’re so fearful that teaching people how to use drugs in a less risky way “enables” them to keep using drugs.  But shouldn’t we do whatever is necessary just to keep people alive? Alive long enough to help get them into drug treatment. Alive long enough to work through their troubles. Alive long enough to help them find some measure of peace in their lives. 

The past decade has seen an explosion in drug-related deaths. Drug poisoning is now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

We all keep hearing about the “overdose epidemic” now being attributed largely to prescription opiate painkillers, like oxycodone. But how many people still have never heard of naloxone, the generic opiate overdose reversal medication that essentially stops an overdose in its tracks and helps to restore normal breath and consciousness? Why isn’t this kind of basic, lifesaving information more readily available? 

While it’s commendable that our drug czar acknowledges that addiction doesn’t discriminate, the fact remains that access to quality drug treatment often does discriminate – in favor of people who’ve been arrested and diverted into treatment programs. There are simply not enough publicly-funded spots available in drug treatment facilities across the country – and many of those spots are filled by people who don’t actually need treatment but who have been mandated by a drug court to complete treatment following a low-level marijuana possession arrest. This needs to stop. Anyone who wants or needs drug treatment should have easy and ready access to it.  Beefing up access to drug treatment saves lots of money in the long-term, but requires a significant investment on the front end. States have to make the commitment to make it easier for people struggling with substance abuse to get the help they need, as quickly as they realize they need it.

I agree that the tragedy of Whitney Houston is a teachable moment. And the same was true about the deaths of Amy Winehouse, Mike Starr, Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger and everyone else that has ever died from an accidental drug overdose. Virtually every moment of every day is a teachable moment when it comes to educating people about preventing overdose deaths. We shouldn’t always have to wait for another superstar to die to have these conversations.

Meghan Ralston is the harm reduction coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance
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