Another perspective on the local illegal drug problem

policeYou read about the opioid crisis, about heroin making its return, about the Valley’s problems with meth, and you, of course, know all about the ongoing, strenuous efforts to go after the drug dealers.

But, are the drug dealers the problem?

I’m thinking it’s worth at least giving some thought to the demand side of the equation.

Does supply create demand? Or does supply simply meet the demand?

Why this is worth more thought is in considering where the current crises are hitting the hardest.

The opioid crisis is something that has overtaken wide swaths of Applachia and the Rust Belt.

Here where I’m based, in quiet, quaint, bucolic Waynesboro, we’re a sort of mini-Rust Belt. Waynesboro was once the thriving industrial center of Western Virginia, home to a DuPont plant that employed 5,000, a General Electric plant that employed 3,000, and other industries – Crompton Shenandoah, Wayn-Tex come to mind – that added, at various points, low thousands more.

Those jobs are almost entirely gone now, and have been for more than a decade, in the case of the DuPont plant, and two decades in the case of GE.

They’ve been replaced by jobs in the retail and food-service sectors, largely, with Waynesboro now resembling any other city in America blessed with access to interstate exits.

Jobs in the retail and food-service sectors pay about 60 percent of what industrial jobs pay, a hard reality for people trying to pay their bills, raise a family, provide for their children’s futures.

On top of that, then, we have voters in the city and neighboring Augusta County seeming to value more that their taxes are low than that their tax dollars are spent wisely for the betterment of their communities.

Waynesboro, it has been stated over and over and over, ad nauseam, has a school population with 60 percent-plus of our kids on free and reduced lunches.

These are the very definition of at-risk kids, who may only get full meals at school, during the school year, as if that’s their only problem.

When mom and dad, or mom or dad, depending on the family situation, is struggling to make ends meet, the kids get less attention. Schoolwork suffers, isn’t a priority, from home, leaving it, in many cases, to the schools to step in and fill the role of surrogate.

Problem there is, our school system is simply not equipped, staffed or funded to be able to do that. Teachers are woefully underpaid, and because of cuts forced to use their own money to pay for classroom supplies. Class sizes are pushed to the max in the name of saving money, so it’s difficult, if not impossible, to provide individualized instruction.

It becomes a cycle, where the goal becomes simply pushing the kids to get scores on their standardized tests on their way to a meaningless diploma that qualifies them for one of those jobs folding sweaters or flipping burgers out by the interstate.

I’m currently working on a book, Poverty of Imagination, exploring the impact of the economic uncertainty that we’re told drove the most recent national election on struggling communities like Waynesboro.

The key issue, to me, is that people in places like Waynesboro, like Appalachia, like the Rust Belt, aren’t beset so much by economic poverty as they are by a dearth of life choices.

Here in Waynesboro, for our parents, for our grandparents, you could drop out of high school at 16, like my father did, and get a job in a factory, buy a house, raise a family and ride off into the sunset.

The kids of today, and the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today, can’t make it here even with a college degree.

The ones who do scratch and claw their way through to a college degree don’t come back, leading to a dangerous brain drain that will become pronounced in the coming decades.

For those left behind, it’s the jobs folding sweaters and flipping burgers, and a future that they can’t imagine will get better, for them or their kids.

In that context, then, is recreational drug use some sort of moral failing, which is how we see it when we focus on punishing it, shaming those caught by splashing their names and faces on the front page of the paper, the evening news and the Internet? Or, is it, at its core, simply an effort at self-medication, a stab at trying to forget the pain of life unfulfilled?

I contend that we can keep arresting drug dealers and drug users to the end of time, but we’re not going to get to the root of whatever problem there is here until we do something about the quality of life.

Invest in our schools, to give kids, like me – I was one of those free and reduced lunch kids – a chance at a better life.

Invest in our economy, to give kids something to work toward when they’re done with school, a glimpse at a future in their hometown where they can get a good-paying job, buy a house and raise a family that they can hope will do even better down the line.

We’re better off investing in ourselves than we are in more prosecutors, police and beds in the regional jail.

Why can’t we see that? That will always bother me.

Column by Chris Graham

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