CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- People who ride in my cab at night usually know where they want to go but they don't always know the best way to get there. I ask two questions:
Where are you going?
Which way do you want to go?
"Here's the address," they say. "Take the shortest route," or, "whichever is easiest," or "go the cheapest way."
In 10 years on the job, I've learned the path you take not only determines how fast you get there, but the cost of the fare. I've learned the name of every street, and I've been witness to all that happens on the street as well.
Being a cab driver doesn't require one to wear a suit and tie to work, but I often find myself donning one to attend another funeral for one of my dead friends. It turns out my dead friends are part of the "per capita" group that helps secure West Virginia a top five position in the United States when it comes to the purchase and misuse of pain killers like OxyContin and Opana. I can't even count the funerals I've attended in the past 10 years.
My dead friends leave families behind. Over 530 people died in one year in West Virginia from drug overdose, far more than the annual death toll from car wrecks. These people are not merely a statistic; they're 530 lost sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers and fathers. I believe what is lost in unrealized human potential is a number that can't be counted.
My dead friends are the reason an outfit called The Trust For America's Health confirms West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. I think about the price of all these funerals. I think about the real expense of our substance abuse problem: the broken families, the burglaries, prostitution and domestic violence.
I drive blighted areas of our city where no small business can flourish because no one wants to go there anymore. Passengers have been pulled from my cab, handcuffed, and thrown in the back of a police cruiser for carrying contraband and handguns. I've had to drive young mothers on drug runs with small children in tow. Kindergarten is surely useless when mom's addiction sends a tired child to school. I haul addicts to the ER -- not only due to overdose, sometimes they go to "doctor shop" on your dime.
What's the fare running so far?
It dawned on me that the manufacture, sale and use of illegal drugs challenges nearly everything we hold dear as a society. The economic burden on everyone is pretty simple to calculate. When we actually look, we can discover the human trauma, all the pain and all the tragedy.
Our legal system focuses on the supply side of the illegal drug trade. We could bust every dealer on the street tonight and five more will take their place tomorrow -- until we focus on curbing the demand.