By Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, Clarion Herald Commentary
We seem to have been in a “forever” war on drugs, but the toll exacted by drugs appears to be growing every year. Is there anything the archdiocese can do take a meaningful stand?
Yes. It’s important that the church speaks loudly because it is a stand for the common good of all people. First of all, from a moral perspective, illegal drugs are outlawed because of their harmful effects on individuals and families. Second, we care deeply about the whole human person, and that means we care about a person’s physical health, spiritual health and emotional health. The church’s voice needs to be heard – calling people to see the harm that’s involved. We are concerned about raising general awareness about the impact of drug use, but, more specifically, we need to help parents and teachers guide young people – the young church – who are dealing with intense peer pressure. It’s very easy for a child to get caught up in drug use because a child wants to fit in and be like everybody else. Sometimes they will hear a friend say, “If you don’t do this, you’re the one who’s immature.”
Can you talk about a group that has been formed locally to come up with a comprehensive and sustainable strategic plan to reduce the negative consequences of illicit drugs and other drugs of abuse and the abuse of alcohol?
The group is called the Greater New Orleans Drug Demand Reduction Coalition (www.gnoddrc.org). The coalition is run by a council of prevention, treatment and law enforcement specialists with a support team of more than 200 concerned citizens. It is being led by Stephanie Haynes and Seton Jenkins, who have been stalwart in assessing the facts about the drug trade and illegal drug use in our community. Our goal is to build a better community together, but in order to do that, we need to get good data about the extent of the problem. Their fact-finding mission has produced an important analysis of the behaviors of 10th graders – the mean age of the study. Looking at sophomore students in the Greater New Orleans Area, 23 percent drink, 21 percent have ridden with a drunk driver, 12 percent have been drunk or “high” at school, 11 percent use marijuana, 5 percent have sold illegal drugs, 5 percent smoke and 4 percent abuse opiates. Among adults, young adults and college students, 40 percent have engaged in binge drinking in the previous two weeks and 18 percent have used marijuana. In 2017, deaths in New Orleans due to opioid overdoses (494) exceeded the number of homicides. Everyone has heard about gun violence in Chicago, where people are shot at a rate of 131 per 100,000. In New Orleans, we have an even higher rate of gun violence – 149 shootings per 100,000 people. Police investigated 454 shootings in 2017 in New Orleans, an average of more than one per day. The NOPD reports that drugs were involved in 90 percent of the cases. The coalition has a four-step plan: assess student drug use through surveys; create a media campaign; raise parental awareness; and teach prevention in schools.
In one sense, anti-drug efforts appear to be swimming against the tide because of the number of states that have loosened restrictions on the recreational use of marijuana. In Colorado, it’s freely sold.
Marijuana is becoming so readily available. Now, we have hard evidence that selling it over the counter has had a harmful effect on society. The marijuana lobby likes to say the drug is harmless, but that’s simply not true. Besides being addictive, marijuana impairs brain function even beyond the phase of acute intoxication, and regular use during adolescence may cause a permanent loss in IQ. There are brain scans of users who began marijuana use at an early stage that show damaged neural development. Since Colorado legalized “recreational” marijuana sales in 2013, the statistics are frightening. There has been a 151 percent increase in marijuana-related auto fatalities. We know that the onset of marijuana use in this area is the age of 6, and we’ve seen kids become habitual users by the age of 10.
What other concerns are there in our area?
Our area is a gateway for heroin in the southeast U.S. We now have convenience stores selling vaping and other drug paraphernalia. Our students carry it with them. A vaping device is as small as a computer thumb drive. Parents need to supervise their children and form them in faith. We also have become much more aware in recent years of opioid addiction.
What is the archdiocese doing now to provide resources for those who are struggling with drugs or alcohol?
We have a life-saving program called SAM – Substance Abuse Ministry – that was established in our archdiocese by Deacon Louis Bauer in Slidell and now has chapters in almost every area of the archdiocese. SAM is for persons afflicted with or affected by substance abuse, and it offers many resources for families and for those who are struggling with recovery. I applaud that group for their vision. I was privileged to give a talk at a SAM meeting about the spirituality of recovery. Kristina Gibson of Catholic Charities’ Isaiah 43 program has been working with parishes on parenting and mentoring initiatives for our youth. We also have a Catholic Charities program called Counseling Solutions, run by Dr. Mark Taliancich, that offers clinical mental health counseling for those struggling with substance abuse. We want to call people to a positive way of life, and we need to open ourselves to God. We can never forget the people who are in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. No one chooses to become addicted; it is a result of misusing drugs over a period of time. Addiction creeps in and takes over the life of the person. Addiction is not only physical but also spiritual and emotional. God is a healer, and we can ask those suffering with addiction to open themselves to his healing power.
Church Questions for Archbishop Gregory Aymond may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.