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 How Michigan Reversed the Growth of Drug Abuse by 2040 – A Scenario

Aug 26, 2023 | Future, Michigan, Well-being | 0 comments

In 2023, a report from the WalletHub company rated Michigan as the tenth worst state for drug problems. Despite the people of Michigan spending millions of dollars per year on drug law enforcement, incarceration, and rehab programs, things were only getting worse:

  • The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS) estimated that one in four Michigan youths between the ages of 18 and 25 suffered from a substance use disorder (including both drugs and alcohol).
  • 47,000 people were enrolled in drug rehab programs.
  • Opioid overdose deaths had increased 14% per year between 2000 and 2020.
  • Deaths from drug overdoses and excessive alcohol use had reached 6,843 in 2022.
  • In 2017, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention had estimated that Michigan’s cost of opioid disorder treatment and overdose deaths was more than $41 billion!

The pressure builds

Michigan reached a tipping point somewhere in the late 2020s. Statistics didn’t move people as much as the personal tragedies in families. People were tired of the epidemic of lost jobs, spouse abuse, divorces, crimes, and deaths that accompanied growing rates of substance abuse. Businesses were tired of job applicants failing their drug tests. Insurance companies were tired of paying out fees for residential rehab at an average of $56,000 per patient. Parents ached over their kids’ wasted potential as one in four got hooked on alcohol or drugs.

Michigan politicians knew they had to respond to a demand for action, but what would work? It took several years to get through all the options that were silly and those that sounded good but were proven not to work. It also took a return to split government so Democrats and Republicans had to work together. It took a grassroots group called Next Generation’s Future (NGF) to form and start applying organized pressure on their representatives. It took the business and insurance lobbies to say “enough is enough” and demand reforms.

The diagnosis

It seemed obvious in retrospect — if the families, institutions, and governments of Michigan were losing billions each year due to substance abuse, why not redirect a good share of it to prevention services? It was people from the insurance lobby who were the most attuned to the prevention approach. They were numbers people. They knew making flu shots free to policy holders saved many times their cost in avoided medical bills. “Inoculating” kids in middle and high school against excessive use of drugs and alcohol should protect them from substance use disorders in the most dangerous ages of 18 to 25.

When the insurance companies put their analysts to work investigating what Michigan was doing on prevention, they found plenty to criticize. The state was following a poorly implemented “Michigan Model for Health” curriculum in its schools. The climbing numbers of young adults with substance use disorders showed it had failed to provide the “inoculation” they needed to resist the lure of drugs and alcohol.

With over 800 public school systems making their own decisions on budgets, it was natural some would buy into the curriculum while others would  not. Even for those that did purchase the program, time-pressed teachers were not able to follow through on the suggested lessons and activities. It was as if every McDonald’s franchise decided which hamburgers to offer and half the time forgot to put them on the grill.

The solution

The process was messy, but under pressure from so many segments of society, Michigan doubled down on a prevention approach. The state maintained its penalties for supplying drugs and alcohol to minors. In fact, it increased funding for enforcement. The main focus, though, was to strengthen the ability of young adults to make healthy choices about using drugs and alcohol. Here is what happened in the 2030s:

  • The state Board of Education threw out the failed Michigan Model for Health curriculum and adopted a “life skills training” curriculum that had a proven track record of reducing the use of cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol.
  • To ensure broad adoption, the Michigan Department of Education started providing all curriculum materials to school systems without charge.
  • To ensure strong implementation, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services established a core of 270 life skill training specialists – one for every ten middle and high schools in the state. These specialists supported teachers with training, coaching, and problem solving to make sure the program hit home.
  • The specialist also put on presentations to enlist parent support for the program at each school.

The Results

Slowly at first, but accelerating as Michigan approached the 2040s, the proportion of young adults diagnosed with substance abuse disorders fell. By 2038, it was one in five, by 2040, one in seven, and by 2043 only one in ten. Michigan businesses were seeing a large decline in failed employee drug tests. Michigan insurance companies were saving millions on the decline in drug rehab expense. And families were suffering less heartbreak.

Could it happen? Why not?

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