NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — A Little Less Judgment Can’t Hurt

Nothing damns quite as quickly as the words “drug addiction.” Just look at Prince.

Hailed as a groundbreaking artist, the Minneapolis musician was near-universally mourned when he died unexpectedly in the Twin Cities last month. But the tributes had barely begun when hints of something darker began to poke through the admiring narrative: hints that a drug overdose, rather than (as claimed) the flu lay behind a medical emergency that grounded his private plane in mid-April. When he was found dead two weeks later, those squirming suspicions burst forth full-grown.

By now, we’re all experts. Not only has “Purple Rain” outpaced “Minnesota Rouser” as our state theme song; we buzz about opiates and Narcan over coffee, thanks not only to Prince but to the alarm over the heroin epidemic in our own communities.

Drugs = bad.

Decades after the futile War on Drugs began, the pursuit of pleasure with unauthorized substances ― not raising a Bud, but smoking it ― is considered weakness of the highest order. Though the last pronouncements have yet to be made, it seems Minnesota’s favorite purple pop star lost his life to an overdose of pills, Percocet or otherwise.

But is it as simple as that? The real cause of his death may well turn out to be an even darker and more invincible demon.

The bottom line may be this: Prince died of pain.

Pain kills. Pain fuels the drive for desperate solutions. Not all of the burgeoning opiate epidemic that officers, medical experts and educators see in our own community starts ― as most of us assume ― with curiosity, risk and the pursuit of illicit pleasures. An unknown proportion stems from an entirely different reality: agony that cannot be erased … pain that can’t be conquered by conventional medicine.

It’s lovely to think medical science can fix all the ills that beset us. That’s easy enough to assume when your personal experience is limited to earaches, appendicitis, knee surgery and other matters that eventually heal and fade into the distance.

A lengthening lifetime teaches some tough lessons. Doctors can’t fix everything that ails you. Despite their best efforts, pain sometimes lingers. If you’re lucky, its buzz and burn may be beaten back by aspirin, Tylenol or Advil. Physical therapy or meditation or alternative medicine might be a panacea.

If you’re doomed, though ― if you know chronic pain that’s piercing, searing, unrelenting, incapacitating, excruciating enough to drive you mad ― medical experts finally must throw up their hands in defeat.

That’s said to be what happened to Prince in the end; a decade after double hip replacement, the New York Times tells us, the persistent legacy of decades of leaps, gyrations and splits may have continued to plague the performer who wouldn’t cut back what he promised his fans.

If the agony is unbearable, is it such a sin to seek relief?

Opiate overuse and addiction have become our problem du jour. Taking away the pills and powders ― limiting prescriptions, cracking down on illegal sales ― may score occasional victories. In the long run, though, enforcement does nothing at all to treat the real problem.

Pain. Good, sincere people who are suffering. Decent people desperate for relief, driven to deadly solutions, willing to take a mortal risk to recapture their everyday lives.

The search for a way to safely conquer pain has brought us to this point and still eludes us. In the early 1800s, morphine was extracted from opium as a presumably safer painkiller; only after wide use during the Civil War did physicians realize its addictive potential. German chemists invented a new wonder drug in 1874, trademarked Heroin. Its sales pitch to doctors claimed it was a “safe, nonaddictive substitute” for morphine.

You know how well that worked out.

Pharmaceutical companies continued to chase the holy grail, an effective painkiller less likely to create addiction. Vicodin in 1994, OxyContin in 1995 and Percocet in 1999 won FDA approval as nonaddictive synthetic alternatives to the fruit of the poppy. They’ve been heavily promoted to our doctors who want new tools to make us healthy and whole. That “less addictive” pitch ― well, nope.

All that good will, all those good intentions, centuries of sincerely ballyhooed solutions to the obvious problem of intractable pain … each of them in turn has done its part to accelerate the addictions we judge so harshly today.

What now? The community is clamoring to bust drug runners and prune back the number of prescriptions that doctors can write. Both steps, though, beg the essential issue ― the unending misery that drives victims to seek the riskiest of remedies, both legal and otherwise.

If law enforcement could magically eliminate access to these drugs that desperate people desire ― after 50 years of the War on Drugs, a seemingly impossible goal ― one part of the problem might be eased. The numbers would look a lot better. One kind of victory could be declared.

But it wouldn’t to do one thing to mitigate the real problem, the dilemma that drives the whole sorry story. Laws alone will never stop the pain.

A little more understanding, please, and a lot less judgment. That won’t solve the problem, either, but it can’t hurt.

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