Illegal drug use in Salt Lake City represents a significant challenge to the city’s policymakers, who are forced to confront the problem as both a public health issue and a criminal threat. The use and abuse of illicit drugs can spiral into addiction, which can in turn lead to chronic physical illness, overdose and death. Drug abuse is also closely connected to increased incidence of violent crime, child abuse, sexual assault, HIV infection and automobile accidents.
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According to the most recently available statistics, as obtained through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, at any given moment approximately 130,000 Salt Lake City residents over the age of 12 will have used at least one illegal drug within the past 12 months. This comprises about 15.2 percent of the population, which is slightly higher than the rates of drug use among the American population as a whole and nearly 3 percent higher than rates for Utah residents collectively. Disturbingly, estimates are that more than half of these drug consumers (76,000) are suffering from a substance abuse disorder, based on criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Overall consumption of illegal street drugs among Utahans is below the national average. But Utah is a leader in illegal prescription drug diversion and misuse, and the situation in the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is especially alarming: while less than 5 percent of the U.S. population age 12 and above are abusing prescription medications, 5.4 percent of all Utahans are misusing these drugs, and in Salt Lake City that number soars to 6.3 percent, which is a whopping 22 percent higher than the national average. Approximately 23 Utahans succumb each month to prescription opioid overdose, mostly in the Salt Lake City metro area, and rates of death related to opioid misuse have skyrocketed by 400 percent since the turn of the century.
Opioid painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone are the most frequently misused prescription medications and, in a related situation, Salt Lake City medical authorities have noticed a clear uptick in the number of people being brought to emergency rooms suffering from heroin overdose, or checking into rehab for a heroin addiction. Heroin is an illegal opioid but is cheaper to purchase than its legalized chemical cousins, and area addiction experts have no doubt that prescription opioids are functioning as gateway drugs helping to push levels of heroin consumption upward.
Among Salt Lake City substance abusers checking into treatment, 40 percent of all men and 28 percent of women are seeking help with alcohol problems. But for women, methamphetamine addiction is becoming a bigger issue, as the percentage of women in treatment for methamphetamine addiction has also reached 28 percent. This is surprising because in the past alcohol has been the most commonly abused drug among all demographic groups. The increasingly ubiquitous opioids (prescription drugs and heroin) are the second most frequently abused intoxicating substance among men, the third most abused by women and the third most abused among teens, after alcohol and marijuana.
On a comparative basis, drug problems in Salt Lake City are in line with what is occurring in other large metropolitan areas. However, the problem of prescription drug abuse is clearly growing in Salt Lake City, even beyond its prevalence in other locations, and trying to develop more effective solutions to this problem may present the biggest challenge that the city’s public health and law enforcement officials will face in the coming years.