Drug abuse as deadly as ever
An extensive study in 1997 concluded that drug and alcohol abuse was the No. 1 health problem facing the Roaring Fork Valley.Recent events indicate the problem isn’t getting any better.A 29-year-old woman died in Aspen last month from alcohol poisoning and cocaine toxicity. Two weeks later a 46-year-old man from Basalt died when his heart stopped after he used cocaine.Substance use wasn’t ruled a contributing factor in the murder-suicide in Snowmass Village last week, although the man and woman both had alcohol and prescription drugs in their systems.While those deaths are the extremes, an emergency room doctor at Aspen Valley Hospital and law enforcement authorities in Pitkin County said there is ample anecdotal evidence to show that drug and alcohol abuse is as severe a problem as ever.Dr. Steve Ayers, an emergency room doctor and Pitkin County coroner, estimated that at least 50 percent of the trauma cases – murders, suicides, injuries from car wrecks and other similar events – are drug or alcohol related. That number has always been significant, but more patients are being admitted via the emergency room for problems created by drug or alcohol use, he said.”Over the last eight to 10 years we’ve seen increasing numbers,” he said.Ayers said nearly every car crash with a fatality or severe injury among teens involved alcohol in recent years. Alcohol use is also a frequent factor in accidents that result in closed-head and spinal cord injuries among young men, he said.The increase might be a byproduct of a larger population rather than an indication of a growing substance abuse problem, Ayers stressed. Pitkin County Jail Administrator Don Bird was a member of a Chemical Dependency Task Force that was created in the mid-1990s to study drug and alcohol abuse problems in the Roaring Fork Valley and in the Interstate 70 corridor from Parachute to Eagle.He said he estimated at that time that 80 percent of people jailed in Pitkin County “had a substance abuse issue that’s connected to their case.” Bird said yesterday he thinks that estimate still holds.”Cocaine’s still out there. People are still doing drugs and booze,” Bird said.Maybe the only factor that’s changed is the type of drugs, at least in the broader geographic area. “There weren’t meth labs in 1998,” Bird noted.But there was a lot of drinking and partaking of various drugs.A report released by the Chemical Dependency Task Force in September 1997 said, “Professionals dealing with substance abuse see the impacts every day, but these impacts remain ‘undercover’ in the general community. These symptoms include absenteeism, family breakdowns, child abuse and domestic violence, criminal behavior, juvenile delinquency and teen pregnancy, suicide rates, hospitalizations, and a high rate of workman’s comp claims. It is a factor in a disproportionate number of accidental deaths.”The report was part of the Aspen Institute’s Community Forum, which looked at top health care issues facing the region. The lack of health insurance was ranked the top financial health care issue. Substance abuse was ranked the top health issue based on a survey of professionals.The report examined various data to conclude that substance abuse problems from Aspen to Glenwood and Parachute to Eagle were extreme when compared to Colorado as a whole, but solutions weren’t any more attainable than in the prior 20 years.Bird said an issue that the Aspen area will also wrestle with is the resort atmosphere. Partying is an essential element for many workers as well as visitors.The 1997 report also stressed that point: “There is more tolerance for alcohol and other drug use both in terms of volume and frequency than in less tourist-oriented places.”Then and now, officials said there is no single or easy solution to the substance abuse issues facing the area. Ayers said the warnings about substance abuse sound like “the same old stuff” until a person looks at startling statistics for the prevalence of drugs and alcohol in this area.The key is educating younger kids about the potential effects of drugs and alcohol, Ayers said. Parents have to play a major role. “It’s just awareness,” he said. Among some older people, awareness probably won’t do any good.”Young men – you’re not going to change their behavior until they’re in their 30s,” Ayers said.Bruce Benjamin, a juvenile investigator for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office for the last 13 years, said early intervention efforts with younger kids, education in schools and at home and enforcement are all making a difference combating drug and alcohol use. Unfortunately, he said, the recent cocaine deaths probably go for naught as far as education for youth.”I don’t think they relate a death in the community to their own lives,” Benjamin said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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