Our nation is in the midst of a public health emergency the likes of which we have not seen since the first decade of AIDS' spread across America. And much like the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the victims of the current crisis are both vilified and ignored, the families of the victims are shamed into silence, and the public at large doesn't know enough to protect itself.
I am speaking of drug overdose, which is now killing tens of thousands of Americans annually, while leaving many thousands more mentally and physically disabled for the rest of their lives. The vast majority of drug overdose deaths are the result of two types of highly addictive, and highly profitable, prescription drugs: opiates and benzodiazapenes. In 2010, one of the more than 25, 000 Americans who died as the result of drug overdose was someone I adored with all my heart: my 18-year-old firstborn, my son Henry.
Before I learned that Henry was addicted to pills, I simply had no clue that the problem of pill addiction and overdose was quietly yet savagely ripping apart the East Tennessee community in which we make our home. Yes, I'd seen the media coverage of "hillbilly heroin," but the threat of such a thing seemed remote and disconnected from my own family's "normal" life. And really, there was no way I could have known what a very serious threat pills posed to my teenage boy. That's because even though an astounding 150 to 200 people a year die of drug overdose every year in our small, southern city, it's as if these people have simply disappeared.
Individual overdose deaths are not reported in the newspaper. Obituaries do not list overdose as a cause of death. Local law enforcement never arrests the dealers behind the overdoses. The local medical examiner routinely seems to rubberstamp the cause of virtually all overdose deaths as "accidental," thus making it easy for the criminal justice system to pretend that no crime occurred. And in my adopted hometown, which I've come to love over the years, the shame and stigma that still exists around losing a child or spouse to drug overdose leads most families to keep their loved one's actual cause of death a big secret.
Given this perfect storm of invisibility that exists around overdose deaths, how could I have known that a teenager living in our county is more likely to die of a pill overdose than from a car accident or a gunshot wound. Shockingly, on the day my son suffered his deadly overdose, another teenager - a beautiful girl named Amber Blizard - also fell victim to illegally diverted prescription pills. That's right; TWO teenagers suffered fatal drug overdoses on the same day in the same small city, and yet no one seemed to consider this remarkable. Not the law enforcement officials who didn't treat the sites of either teen's overdose as a crime scenes. Not the local media that never noticed the fact that two kids were killed in the same way on the same day.
What if two teens had been shot or stabbed to death on the same day? Or two 18-year-olds from two different local high schools or college freshman classes had died in car wrecks on the same day? Even if both teenagers bore some responsibility for the accidents that took their lives - perhaps by speeding or driving under the influence - their deaths would have been noted by our community. But drug overdose victims are treated like they never existed, or deserved to exist.
I learned after my son died that our state's criminal statutes, as well as federal criminal laws both unequivocally define drug distribution resulting in the death of someone else as homicide. In fact, under federal law, there are more severe penalties for adults over 21 whose drug dealing causes the death of someone under the age of 21, as was the case for my son, and in many other adolescent OD fatalities.
There is a disconnect, though, between what the law says, and how it is applied. The law doesn't care whether the person who died of the overdose was struggling with addiction him or herself. But in practice, victims who are addicts get a lesser form of justice. After my son died, a local assistant DA told me that I needed to understand that my teenager was "an unattractive victim" due to his addiction to pills, as if that were a reasonable excuse for ignoring the fact that the dealers behind the drugs that killed Henry would remain free in our community to provide drugs to some other at-risk kid.
Similarly, the law doesn't have a category for victims who somehow "asked for it." If a teenage boy asked an adult to shoot him in the head, for instance, even offered the adult money to do it, would that absolve the adult who fired the fatal shot from criminal responsibility? Of course not. Yet just as in the early days of the spread of AIDS, the victims of overdose are far too often treated as disposable and invisible, because so many believe that they have only themselves to blame for their own deaths.
As long as we continue acting as if overdose victims are not real people who are worthy of equal interest by the criminal justice system, public health authorities, and the media, the numbers of the dead will continue to rise. It was only after Americans' attitudes toward AIDS victims began to shift from blame to compassion that we were finally able to come together in a unified national effort to fight the monster that had already been allowed to devour an entire generation of young gay men. Similarly, until we stop acting as if the tens of thousands of Americans currently dying each year of overdose are unworthy, invisible and disposable, this new monster - the one that took my beloved child from me before he had even had the chance to cast his first vote as an American citizen - will continue to roam our neighborhoods and snatch our children.
My son did not want to be addicted to pills, and he did not want to die before starting his freshman year of college. He certainly did not want to see any other kids hurt and suffer as he did from opiate addiction. In his memory, I now speak out often and loudly to let other parents know what I did not until it was too late, which is that kids are dying all around us, every single day. Until we stop acting as if it isn't happening, or telling ourselves that it could never happen in our own families, the band will continue to play on.
PLEASE LEARN MORE ABOUT HENRY LOUIS GRANJU'S LEGACY OF LOVE AND HOPE FOR YOUNG ADDICTS BY BECOMING A FRIEND OF HENRY'S FUND ON FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/henrysfund
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America's failed war on drugs Sept. 4 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
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