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Time to face sad reality: We’re a nation of addicts

If we weren’t such a nation of addicts, maybe hordes of drug smugglers wouldn’t crash our borders to feed our habit.

Maybe drug cartels wouldn’t terrorize Mexico and Central America – our gift to our southern neighbors.

Maybe drunks wouldn’t kill so many on our highways, or our health care system wouldn’t be so overwhelmed and costly.

Maybe not so many families would fall apart and our cities wouldn’t be bloodstained by gang wars – or so many adolescent lives wasted before they could even get started.

Time to face it: We’ve become a nation of addicts. So many addictions it’s hard to list them all. Alcohol. Tobacco, nicotine and vaping on electronic cigarettes. Sugar, fat, junk food. Sex and pornography, the addictions of the mind, body and soul.

Gambling, the Internet, video games. Prescription drugs, including sedatives, hypnotics, sleeping pills and tranquilizers. Street drugs, cocaine, cannabis, meth, PCP. Compulsive aggression, kleptomania and pyromania. Chocolates? Don’t tempt me.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse calculates that the cost of illicit drug use alone amounts to $181 billion annually in health care, productivity loss, crime, incarceration and drug enforcement. Add alcohol and tobacco addictions and we ring up $554 billion a year. If we include all those other addictions, the cost is incalculable. Could it be $1 trillion? Think of what only a slice of that could do for improving education and for combating hunger, poverty and homelessness.

It’s worsening. Overdose deaths are increasing, the institute reported. It calculated that almost 24 million Americans, or 9.2 percent of the population, had used an illicit drug or abused a pain reliever or similar medication in a single month in 2012. That’s up from 8.3 percent in 2002. Most of the increase was attributed to marijuana use, the nation’s most common illicit drug.

Well, we know how to take care of that, don’t we? If we legalize marijuana, the percentage of illicit drug users will drop through the floor – which is the direction that we’re going, based on the increasing number of states that have legalized “medical” use of weed and the breakthrough statewide legalization of “recreational” marijuana in Washington and Colorado.

Ending the “crime of self-medication,” as illegal pot use is euphemistically called, will empty the jails of those innocents who use or sell this supposedly harmless, even beneficial, substance, we’re told – even though the science absolving marijuana of any harm is not settled.

What are we running from that we’re so compelled to search for, create and overdose on so many props? Do we have it so tough that we have to risk addiction to ease the pain and find calm? Or excitement? Some might blame our hectic lives. Others might accuse our unraveling culture. Or growing tolerance of self-destructive behavior as a libertarian sort of right.

This is no moral diatribe about how “if only we had the willpower” we wouldn’t be in such a mess.

Addiction is a disease, a chronic one, in which actual physiological and chemical changes take over our brains and bodies. It begins in a search for escape, pleasure and relief. It ends in dependence and, sometimes, death. Rightfully, an entire industry has been created in which brave, smart and compassionate people love and care for the addicted. We need more of that. A lot more.

But first we must acknowledge our addictions, so many of which now fly under a cultural camouflage that some addictions aren’t harmful or dehumanizing. In this we’re not entirely consistent. Being hooked on smoking is very bad, unless you’re smoking weed. Crack is destructive, but not pornography.

We now hear about “recreational” marijuana and how getting high is “self-medication.” The next step is to call it recreational addiction.

We ignore addiction as if it weren’t a national scourge. Gallup finds that it’s not even listed among America’s top 20 social issues. Public opinion needs to confront the reality. Only then will the science of addiction and its treatment be given the jolt it needs to match its seriousness.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago writer who blogs in The Barbershop at chicagonow.com.