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for people who care about the West

Incremental progress, rather than quick fixes, will help the Southwest overcome substance abuse


Anyone who’s lived in a rural community knows that talking about substance abuse can be nearly as hard as treating it. On federal fact sheets, addicts and overdose victims are faceless statistics; in small towns, they’re friends, neighbors, children, parents. Our criminal justice systems treat addiction like a moral failing, while our healthcare systems neglect its cultural and socioeconomic roots. We continue to stigmatize substance abuse, even as the ongoing heroin epidemic ravages suburbs and rural towns across the county.

New syringes are stacked inside a mobile needle exchange van run by the Santa Fe Mountain Center in Espanola, New Mexico.
Leah Todd/Solutions Journalism Network
Reporting on substance abuse can be as challenging as treating it. Journalists who document overdose deaths in their communities often face the opprobrium of residents, who fear that their region will come to be associated with drugs in the American consciousness. This is particularly true in Northern New Mexico, where addiction and overdose rates far exceed national and statewide averages, and where it’s all too easy to grow numb to addiction. Welcome signs in Española flash don’t-drink-and-drive warnings; banners hailing anti-DUI campaigns span the length of Taos’s main street; and t-shirts emblazoned with the face of Walter White, the meth kingpin immortalized by Breaking Bad, fill the Albuquerque airport. Substance abuse here is somehow both invisible and ubiquitous.

This month, “Small Towns, Big Change” is staring addiction in the face, and daring to imagine how to treat it. In our latest package of stories, you’ll encounter a broad array of solutions to the daunting problem of substance abuse, including a data-sharing network that helps prevent recently released prisoners from ODing; a prospective needle exchange program in southern Colorado; and a clinic in remote Questa that’s combining medical treatment with group therapy. “I’ve never wanted to help myself as much as I want to now,” one painkiller addict tells reporter J.R. Logan in the latter story. “This is my sanctuary. This is where I feel safe.”

We should warn you that you’ll read nearly as many stories about struggle as about success. Look at Rio Arriba County, where a litany of innovative treatments haven’t changed the conditions of poverty that underpin addiction, or at the San Luis Valley, where a crackdown on painkillers has led to a rise in heroin. Although there are no quick fixes to beating addiction, analyzing failure can be as instructive as celebrating success. In place of easy answers, then, we offer stories about incremental progress, nascent ideas, and people who will do anything to stay sober, alive, and free.

Read all the stories:

Ben Goldfarb

Solutions Journalism Network

If you want to participate in the Small Towns, Big Change reporting project, or have a story to share about substance use and possible solutions, text “Hello” to 505–705–8146. You’ll be invited to share some thoughts about how substance abuse has affected you, and about what solutions you think are possible. It’s all anonymous.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.