News junkie that I am, I check in periodically with C-SPAN, the public interest TV channel paid for by cable TV companies. Recently, I got important updates on America's opioids epidemic from a panel sponsored by Oxford House, a not-for-profit that helps addicts with recovery through a network of "clean and sober" houses.

Here is part of what I learned from the panel:

Over 400,000 people in our country have died from overdoses of opioids over the past 20 years And we are losing ODs from opioids and other illicit drugs currently at a rate of 60,000 to 70,000 a year.

Lawmakers and their staffs in Washington have "no clue" about the opioid crisis, according to some on the panel.

Driving the epidemic is what one panelist called "the addiction for profit industry." Despite having to shell out mega-billion dollar settlements to states for their part in fueling the opioid crisis, pharmaceuticals such as Purdue Pharma "are laughing all the way to the bank."

One reason: These same companies that have given us oxycontin and oxycodone are manufacturing methadone and suboxone, the chemical substances used to counteract the effects of opioid overdoses. These medicines, taken long term, also create dependency.

"We are replacing one (addictive) drug with another," said Dr. Stuart Gitlow, former president of the American Society of Addictive Medicine. "But we are stepping down to a drug that, while dependency addictive, is less likely to cause harm - illness or death."

The panelist who garnered the most applause from an audience of some 1,700 recovering addicts at a Washington seminar center was Dr. Jerome Adams, U.S. Surgeon General. Clad in his U.S. Coast Guard whites, he began by saying, "I am neither a surgeon nor a general, but in actuality an anesthesiologist."

Adams noted that largely due to the opioid epidemic, average life expectancy for Americans has gone down for the third year. (From 78 and a fraction to 78 and a lower fraction).

He also torpedoed the widely popular view that recreational marijuana should be legalized. He asked the attending addicts in recovery how many of them had smoked pot before they were 25 years old. Almost every hand in the room went up.

"My own brother started with marijuana," Adams said. "Then he went to a party and somebody gave him a pill, and that led to heroin."

The surgeon general left the impression, without being specific, that at the moment his brother's struggle with addiction could well end with death - or imprisonment.

He also told the assembly that youth who smoke marijuana are more likely than their non-smoking peers to drop out of high school and thus severely compromise their future in the workplace.

I also learned from the panel that tobacco and alcohol still are responsible for more deaths in our country annually than are opioids

If we could substantially cut down on the ravages of "the Big Three" - alcohol, tobacco and opioids - we would reap tremendous reductions in crime and social disorder throughout the land.

Following the Oxford House panel on opioids, C-SPAN cut to a discussion between Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., on the dearth of public awareness of civics. Remember high-school civics?

That's where we were supposed to learn how our government works. Sabato and Scott agreed that we have a crisis of public ignorance around this very subject. And it is devastating in its consequences.

John Patrick Grace is a book publisher in Huntington.

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