by Greta Feldman
In July 2017, journalist Emily de la Bruyère traveled to two small towns in southwestern Ohio to report on the opioid epidemic and its impact on families and communities. Her five-part series produced intimate ethnographies, but she made clear what most already knew—this issue is not confined to any one place or demographic. At the same time, however, it weighs especially heavy on impoverished and depressed communities. I recently spoke with Emily to better understand the national narrative and how local, state and federal governments are addressing the crisis. She made several notable points which are important in considering the issue at large:
This crisis is a prominent political issue in ways that the crack and meth epidemics were not. However, they are all part of a larger cycle.
The first thing I asked Emily was why this issue is getting attention that we did not see with other drug epidemics. She explained, “It is partly because this is something that affects the affluent and the white, and that makes it a salient political issue in a way that crack wasn’t. The people in power who set the agenda are more likely to be affected by it than with issues that deal specifically with minorities. If it is only a disenfranchised group, it is less likely to enter the political agenda.” As a result, more and more people are starting to see that the way we respond to drug use and addiction is not an inherently moral question. And while those other drugs crises received perhaps different attention and have burned out of national view, the question remains whether opioid use is still a product of a larger boom and bust cycle of addiction. Emily did not have enough familiarity with drugs and drug crisis to speak to this, but explained that many of the people she met certainly felt that this instant crisis was part of a greater, national one. She described one man she met a treatment center: “He thinks about all of these issues as tied together . . . that this is a larger escalating issue of addiction.”
Community members and public officials alike recognize the severity of the issue, but in some cases have very different attitudes towards the policies and efforts which could help to alleviate the problem.
The communities Emily visited were undertaking efforts to combat the opioid crisis, which included implementing educational programs and needle exchanges, and securing grants to resupply things like Narcan, a drug used to revive people who have overdosed on opioids. But she saw that the issue was beginning to weigh so heavily that officials and community members were slowly diverging. In one of her articles, Emily discusses that the financial strain was so great on one working class town that officials considered implementing a policy which would prevent emergency medical services from resuscitating victims after two interventions. This financial and reputational drain is so severe that this split continues to grow.
To illustrate this point, Emily described the grassroots efforts undertaken by victims and their family members: “It was deeply understanding and it was based on community and education and support more than anything else.” But at the same time, she saw people like the county sheriff drawing a hard line. “He has zero sympathy for this, and he is saying ‘we are not going to put our money into trying to save them.’” This attitude, she posited, stemmed from a general concern over how the town was going to be able to recover financially from the crisis.
It is a struggling town that is trying to rebrand and reinvent itself, and it was hit really hard by 2008. It was just starting to come up before this happened. And partly because the problem is so big there and partly because of bad luck, they’ve really been pushed into the epicenter of the conversation about the drug problem. And so for the government it has become partly a public health issue but also in huge part a branding issue. This is bad for their image and their image really matters right now.
To illustrate this point, Emily recounted a conversation with a firefighter that was cut short because his chief called to tell him that they a new rule prohibited him from talking to the press. The local government simply did not wish to draw any more national attention to the issue.
The opioid epidemic is gripping the nation in ways that previous drug crises have not, but the relationship between poverty and addiction remains the same. Already-depressed communities are at a breaking point, as local, state, and federal government grapple to address the issue. Pushed to the point of physical, emotional, and economic exhaustion, these small towns struggle to imagine how they will dig themselves out of the dark.
 Telephone Interview with Emily De La Bruyère, Journalist, Yahoo News (Feb. 7, 2018) [herein after Interview].
 Interview, supra note 2.
 Emily De La Bruyère , For Taxpayers, the Drug Epidemic’s Bills Come Due, Yahoo (Aug. 2, 2017), https://www.yahoo.com/news/taxpayers-drug-epidemics-bills-come-due-155205762.html.
 Interview, supra note 2.