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Editor’s Note: Forgetting

Newspapers around the world carried the tragic story—Ella Henderson, a young socialite, became addicted to opioids after the death of her father. She soon turned to other drugs and alcohol. The articles recounted that Henderson’s friends, “convinced that she was no longer capable of taking care of her children, took them from her.” The drugs “had dragged her down to the verge of debauchery. In the seclusion of her own room, she literally poisoned herself to death.”

Henderson was 33 years old. The year was 1878.

Clinton Lawson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Montana, wrote about Henderson’s story in The New York Times. “Henderson developed an addiction at a vulnerable point in her life, found doctors who enabled it, and then self-destructed. She was just one of thousands of Americans who lost their lives to addiction between the 1870s and the 1920s,” Lawson writes.

According to an article by Erick Trickey in Smithsonian magazine, the U.S. Civil War sparked the widespread use of opioids in America. “The Union Army alone issued nearly 10 million opium pills to its soldiers, plus 2.8 million ounces of opium powders and tinctures,” writes Trickey.

Off the battlefield, doctors were increasingly turning to morphine as a salve to numerous ailments. Trickey explains that alternate pain relievers, better sanitation, and vaccines led to a slowing of opioid use. An education campaign about the dangers of opioids urged doctors to use them only as a last resort. Regulations and laws controlling the dissemination of opioids were also critical.

If all of this sounds like history repeating itself, that’s because it is. This cycle is known as “generational forgetting.” The term refers to the phenomenon where each generation forgets what the previous generation learned, specifically in regard to drugs.

The problem may be an old one, but the latest numbers represent a new level of crisis.
As discussed in this month’s cover story by Managing Editor Claire Meyer, “In 2017, an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States suffered from a prescription opioid-related drug disorder and more than 47,000 people died of opioid overdoses.”

This presents a particular problem for employers and for those charged with workplace safety and security. “A 2019 survey from the National Safety Council found that 75 percent of U.S. employers have been directly affected by opioids, but only 17 percent feel extremely well prepared to deal with the issue,” Meyer wrote. “Thirty-one percent reported an overdose, an arrest, a near-miss, or an injury because of employees’ opioid use.”

From crime on company property, to insider theft, to injuries and accidents, when opioid use spills over into the workplace, the results can be dangerous. Armed with resources and awareness, security professionals can prepare to face the newest and, hopefully, the last opioid epidemic.