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Are the solutions to the opioid and gun violence crises in St. Louis interconnected?

Tom Walker | Flickr | http://bit.ly/22McgqC
St. Louis is experiencing a crisis in both opioid overdose and gun violence-related deaths. Are they related?

Last year set a record for the number of drug overdose deaths in the St. Louis region, most of them opioid-related. Gun violence has also long been a problem in St. Louis. Although there’s no evidence to prove the rise in the prevalence of both issues is related, the solution to them is interconnected, advocates say.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the connection and what can be done with Howard Weissman, the executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse - St. Louis Area, and James Clark, the vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life, Inc.

The NCADA and Better Family Life, Inc. have recently partnered to address gun violence and substance abuse in the St. Louis area.

“Opioid use is on the rise. Heroin addiction is on the rise. Then you have synthetic drugs, like K2, that have entered into the environment,” Clark said. “In this current community, drugs are swirling in ways I’ve never seen before. … We are happy to have the partnership because it is a strong collaboration that will yield a lot of promise and it will help shift the focus in St. Louis. Right now, we seem to have priorities that do not address our growing needs.  We have a gun problem and a drug crisis, both are at crisis level right now.”

To illustrate the large nature of the opioid problem, Weissman called attention to the three largest drug epidemics in U.S. history. In the 1970s, 1.5 out of every 100,000 Americans were impacted by the heroin epidemic. In the 1970s, 2 out of every 100,000 were impacted by the crack epidemic. Now, with the opioid epidemic, 10.3 out of every 100,000 are impacted.

“This is a massive public health emergency of size and scale no one has ever seen before,” Weissman said.

Although there are similar risk factors for substance abuse and gun violence, Weissman said he could not make the case that opioid use is increasing violent crime or vice versa.

“When you look at the victims of violent death, 14 percent are related to opioids,” Weissman said. “Forty percent related to other drugs. Forty-two percent of people who died from a violent death will test positive for alcohol. Only 12 percent have no drugs in their system.”

Clark’s organization, Better Family Life, specializes in a grassroots solutions approach, working deeply in neighborhoods to combat both gun violence and substance use. He said St. Louis needs to double down on funding for more programs like this that actually get into neighborhoods to provide help and resources.

“We’ve analyzed this to the hilt,” Clark said. “We understand the underlying problems, we have enough data, there are volumes of studies. We have to take the next study and go into neighborhoods for direct engagement. We learn about conflicts and we go about the task of deescalating gun violence, conflicts that have a trajectory of gun violence. … We have to have a hands-on and boots-on-the ground approach in dealing with gun violence and drug addictions. We cannot sit back any longer. “

Weissman agreed, saying also that to solve both the opioid and gun violence crisis, funding needs to be directed at addressing underlying factors that lead to both of those things.

“The lack of economic opportunities that would lead someone to criminal enterprise like selling drugs,” Weissman said. “The abundance of poverty and pain in people’s lives that would have people turn to drugs to ease the pain. In my mind, these are both public health emergencies.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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