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UW Researcher Wants To Normalize Conversations Around Drug Use

Toby Talbot
Associated Press
This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo, shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt.

The word epidemic is often used when discussing opioid use in King County. In fact, a task force was formed earlier this year to come up with recommendations addressing the issue. Those suggestions are being released this month. But ahead of that report, 88.5’s Ariel Van Cleave sat down with senior researcher Caleb Banta-Green at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Institute to ask if we’re talking about drugs, drug use and treatment in the right ways.

Banta-Green prefers the term "opioid-use disorder" rather than "addiction." He says it's more specific when it comes to explaining people are actually dealing with a treatable medical condition. 

"We have people who have depression. We have people who have diabetes. We have people who have cancer. We don't call them cancer, depression or diabetes," he said. "We don't label them and ultimately stereotype and reduce them. It really, I think, dehumanizes people."

He says our bodies are hard wired to like opioids, though some are more inclined to develop dependencies than others. Banta-Green points to our natural endorphins system as the reason why. But he says the big increases in opioid prescriptions medications means we have more access to drugs and can become more easily dependent. Banta-Green says because we're primed to potentially misuse opioids, we need to start having more conversations, earlier, about how to avoid that dependence. 

"The peak age of first misusing prescription opioids is 14 to 15 years of age ... I think the real conversation needs to happen when the kid can get to the medication safety cap," he said. "It's now normal, 50 percent of adults take a prescription medicine every day. We need to make it normal for them to model how they take them and talk about explicitly."

Banta-Green says the first line of defense against misuse is prevention. If that fails, turning to treatments, such as methadone, and interventions, such as needle exchanges and safe-consumption sites, are next. 

Ariel first entered a public radio newsroom in 2004 while in school at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. It was love at first sight. After graduating from Bradley, she went on to earn a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Ariel has lived in Indiana, Ohio and Alaska reporting on everything from salmon spawning to policy issues concerning education. She's been a host, a manager and now rides shotgun with Kirsten Kendrick as the Morning Edition producer at KNKX.