The Dec. 20 edition of the Custer County Chronicle was remarkable for two stories that have much in common.
On page one above the fold, a wildfire had burned across Custer State Park and Lame Johnny Creek, threatening communities. The state of South Dakota and our neighbors pulled out all the stops to fight the fire. Like the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, we were ill-prepared for a giant off-season fire in spite of warnings from Custer’s Emergency Management officer, Mike Carter. We were warned, but we weren’t ready.
Most firefighters were off for the season or standing down after a long fire year. California fires sucked up South Dakota resources, but we have mutual-aid agreements and we threw the kitchen sink at it — air tankers, helicopters, fire engines. Heck, we treated it just like a major emergency with peoples’ lives at stake. We brought people in from everywhere and didn’t stand down until it snowed eight days later.
On page six, the entire page, a meth epidemic was raging across Custer County, fueled in part by state efforts to control it through increasingly dysfunctional legislation and policies that simply don’t work. Seventh District Court Judge Matt Brown detailed his daily and increasingly grim fight against meth addiction.
Unlike the wildfire, Judge Brown and Judge Linngren and a handful of other first responders are fighting the meth war alone. Well, “alone” if you don’t count the prosecutors and legislators who don’t get it about addiction and addiction treatment, and the deputies and police officers who implement policy through an endless cycle of arresting the same people over and over on the same charges.
The wildfire was a perfect metaphor for the meth epidemic in every way. Meth burns through families and communities, destroying lives and shattering dreams. Addiction is burning out of control. There is little meaningful treatment and the prognosis is not good.
We’re not throwing the kitchen sink against meth. It’s like we can see the fire front, but we just don’t understand how to build a line to stop it. We keep doing the same things over and over and expecting a different outcome. That kind of behavior is the very definition of addiction. We’re addicted to our approach to our war on drugs and we’re failing.
Unlike the wildfire, the front-line troops fighting meth won’t go home and the meth fire won’t end. Judge Brown mentioned prescription drugs once in five full columns of type and didn’t even blink at marijuana. Those aren’t the problems he sees.
“Listen to those who have experience in treating, dealing with, and fighting for a new approach to those who suffer,” Brown wrote. “Instead of the public footing the bill to incarcerate addicts, (addicts) can actually be out in the workforce, clean and productive. That should be the goal.”
There are no drug court judges sitting on the state task force on opioids (formerly the meth task force). There are no pain patients and few front-line troops who deal with these problems every day — just a bunch of statisticians running numbers and wondering why things aren’t improving.
We can’t stop the fire with our self-destructive anger about drug use. We can’t quench the flames with longer (or shorter) prison sentences, by increasing the severity of charges (or decreasing them), or by insisting that addicts clean up.
Like the wildfire, we have to get serious about long-term treatment, up to a year or more, with large teams of people and well-appointed facilities built for the purpose. The alternative is too costly to endure.