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Ralston: What can we learn after Whitney?

Photo Credit: TMS illustration by Kevin Kreneck

Meghan Ralston is the harm reduction coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy organization.

As someone who works to help prevent overdose deaths, I don't just get sad when I hear about someone dying from a suspected accidental drug overdose -- I get angry. And frustrated.

White House drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske, speaking with CBS News about Whitney Houston's untimely death, referred to it as a "teachable moment." The "teachable moment" message always seems to get trotted out when someone famous appears to have died of an overdose. But what's being taught?

Kerlikowske gets a lot of things right -- like when he said in the interview that many families struggle with these issues and it's important to raise awareness about prescription drug abuse. But he missed an opportunity by failing to specify what Americans can learn from Houston's alleged overdose.

He could have talked about the importance of providing basic information about how to prevent, recognize and respond to an overdose at places like high schools, colleges, drug treatment facilities and homeless shelters.

He could have explained that the chances of surviving an overdose, like those of surviving a heart attack, depend greatly on how fast one receives medical assistance -- and mentioned that New York, Illinois, New Mexico, Connecticut and Washington have recently passed "Good Samaritan" laws to encourage people to call 911 immediately, without fear of arrest and prosecution for minor drug law violations.

At the very least, he could have said that it's people in their 40s and 50s -- not adolescents -- who are more likely to die from an accidental drug overdose. Parents are rightly cautioned these days to "lock up your medicine cabinets," to reduce the likelihood of potentially dangerous drugs getting into young hands. But do parents realize the risks to themselves if they improperly use the same drugs?

We could be doing more to keep drug abusers alive. As a society, we seem willing to let people die because we're fearful that teaching them how to use drugs in a less risky way "enables" them to keep using. But shouldn't we do whatever is necessary to keep people alive long enough to help get them into drug treatment and to work through their troubles?

Drug poisoning is now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We keep hearing about the prescription-drug epidemic, now being attributed largely to opiate painkillers like oxycodone. But many people have never heard of naloxone, the generic opiate overdose reversal medication that essentially stops an overdose in its tracks, helping to restore normal breath and consciousness. Why isn't this kind of basic, lifesaving information more readily available? Or for that matter, why isn't naloxone more readily available?

While it's commendable that our drug czar acknowledges that addiction doesn't discriminate, the fact remains that access to quality drug treatment often does -- in favor of people who've been arrested and diverted into treatment programs. There simply aren't enough publicly funded spots available in drug-treatment facilities across the country, and many such spots are filled by people who don't actually need treatment but who have been mandated by a drug court to complete treatment after a low-level marijuana possession arrest. This needs to stop.

Anyone who wants or needs drug treatment should have easy and ready access to it. Beefing up access to treatment saves lots of money in the long term, but it requires a significant investment on the front end. States have to make it easier for people struggling with substance abuse to get the help they need, as quickly as they realize they need it.

The tragedy of Whitney Houston's death is a teachable moment. The same was true of the deaths of Amy Winehouse, Mike Starr, Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger and everyone else who has died from an accidental overdose. Virtually every moment is a teachable one when it comes to educating people about preventing overdose deaths. We shouldn't always have to wait for another superstar to die to have these conversations.