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A few years ago it seemed unthinkable.

The small towns and tranquil life of Southern Illinois seemed the most unlikely setting for drug addiction.

It seems those of us who had those quaint notions had our heads buried in the sand — perhaps up to our waist.

Southern Illinois — from Chester to Pinckneyville to Carbondale to Goreville to Golconda and all points in between — has been adversely affected by the opioid crisis gripping our nation. In fact, recent articles published by the Belleville News Democrat indicate the problem is particularly acute in our region.

It’s certainly no longer undeniable.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, there were 1,200 opioid-related deaths in Illinois during 2016 — 1,200! That would be like the villages of Royalton, Crainville, Rosiclare or Norris City disappearing. 1,200 is the combined population of Makanda and Equality.

The opioid crisis, which was declared a national emergency by President Donald J. Trump last week, does not discriminate by ZIP code or social class. It cuts across all demographic groups — rich or poor, uneducated or educated, and has no preference for skin color.

This scourge of addiction isn’t simply the result of a subset of the population looking to dropout of society. It has been largely fueled by prescription painkillers.

Government research shows that 76 million opioid prescriptions for opioid painkillers were written in 1991. That number skyrocketed to 245 million in 2014. And, when the prescriptions run out, addicted Americans are turning to heroin and other street drugs.

Adding fuel to the fire is the ready availability of heroin at ridiculously cheap prices. Police will tell you it’s cheaper to purchase heroin than marijuana.

If there is a silver lining in this black cloud, it is the fact that this is a trend that can be reversed. Actions are being taken that can, first, stem the tide and then reverse the trend.

Earlier this year, St. Clair County in Metro East filed a lawsuit against Abbott Laboratories for its promotion of opioids.

“It was the defendant’s marketing — and not any medical breakthrough — that rationalized prescribing opioids for chronic pain and opened the floodgates for opioid use and abuse. The result has been catastrophic,” according to the suit.

Lawyers might argue over the merits of the lawsuit, but the conclusion drawn in the final sentence seems obvious enough.

In the meantime, the Trump administration is sending out mixed messages. Declaring the opioid epidemic a national emergency opens the door to additional funding. On the other hand, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ justice department seems to be taking a hard-nosed 1980s approach to the nation’s drug problem.

Treatment, not incarceration, is the logical approach to opioid addiction. Obviously, person’s committing crimes related to their addiction shouldn’t be given a free pass, but criminalizing the addition itself is counterproductive.

A 2016 article in U.S. News and World Report outlined 10 ways to combat opioid abuse.

The most promising suggestions include making overdose medication readily available to police and emergency personnel. Giving someone a second chance begins with the basic premise of keeping them alive.

The magazine also suggested establishing medical guidelines for treatment of chronic pain. Again, it seems obvious, but limiting the exposure of unsuspecting patients to these powerful drugs is an important first step.

And, perhaps the most important suggestion is increasing the availability and affordability of assistance and treatment.

We can’t rely on the antiquated notion of “Just say no.” The opioid problem is real. It is ruining the lives of our friends, neighbors and family members.

There is no easy cure. We need to provide help, long-term help if necessary, to help addicted Americans come clean. Our future depends on it.

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