Society must examine behavior in drug crisis

Ashley Bunton - Contributing columnist

I keep asking people what they think about the drug crisis.

To begin with, why do some people call it the “opioid epidemic?” Epidemic implies that there has, at some point, been a determination made through the examination of some set of epidemiological data. In fact, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) established the heroin issue as an epidemic, presumably based on the spread of the rate of deaths from overdoses.

Classification aims to identify an issue. Our brains automatically look for ways to compartmentalize concepts that make it is easy for us to digest information in a way that we can understand. However everyone agrees to use the same language and words in order to have effective communication and to get along. We call the issue an opioid epidemic largely because we learn to call it that from other people who use that language.

But then I wondered, has everyone seen the epidemiological data for their area that would indicate proof that justifies labeling entire communities as having an “epidemic?”

I found that there is no state database managed by the CDC, the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Department of Mental Health, or the Ohio Attorney General’s Office that shows what the epidemiological data looks like. If you want information, where do you go? So death certificates and overdose data have been made available to journalists by public records requests, and the Your Voice Ohio state news project made county-by-county “death maps” to reveal where overdoses were reported.

Overdose death locations are sometimes seen in close proximity to one another, in clusters of sorts. But what about the areas in the communities where no overdose deaths were reported to have occurred at all? Would the community in which there were no overdose deaths reported still be accurately portrayed as being part of the “opioid epidemic?” How many overdose deaths constitute an epidemic?

I wonder how it is that we can use the term “opioid epidemic,” then, if there was not readily available data to show it. There’s still a lot of people who do not believe that addiction is a disease, and I have to say, I think I agree with them, because what people are pointing out is that before there is the onset of any signs of disease, there is a behavioral problem that makes people want to do drugs.

According to research, maybe as many as 25 percent of all drug users only use heroin because of association; if not for the crowd that they hung around with, the person would otherwise not use the drug. Logically, that is certainly a behavioral issue and not a disease.

A cognitive behavioral problem probably wouldn’t be labeled as an “epidemic” but as a societal issue or crisis. So in a lot of ways, as journalists we have to look at what is happening in a broader sense than just a disease — it’s a socio-medical issue.

I wonder if labeling the drug problem as solely an “opioid epidemic,” if well-intentioned people are outweighing other social aspects of behavior that underlies the development of the drug use.

There’s a bevy of reasons and excuses people mention for their choice to begin using drugs, but if there’s a behavioral aspect, as research suggests, then the societal behavioral crisis warrants just as close an examination as does the attention being placed upon it as a medical disease.

Based upon prior research, the “heroin epidemic” has been a contemporary issue now for more than 100 years.

We cannot continue to call it an “opioid epidemic” and focus on it as a “disease,” I think.

It’s important to look at the research that is already there and to consider what is really already known and studied about this issue. We cannot ignore the societal aspect of drug use.

In my professional opinion, after reviewing research, I now believe that the issue should not be referred to as an opioid epidemic, but as a crisis. Calling it a crisis will leave room for people to address the behavioral aspect of the problem — the 25 percent of drug users who use drugs just because that’s what they want to do.

Ashley Bunton

Contributing columnist

Ashley may be contacted by calling at (740) 313-0355, by email at, or connect on Twitter by searching for @ashbunton and sending a message.

Ashley may be contacted by calling at (740) 313-0355, by email at, or connect on Twitter by searching for @ashbunton and sending a message.