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Wyoming's state motto, the "Equality State" rings true (unfortunately) when we peer through the heartbreaking lens of drug and alcohol addiction. Although it boasts a relatively small population compared to its massive land size (563,626 people as of the 2010 census) the drug and alcohol abuse epidemic that has ravaged the United States has been equally devastating to Wyoming, blowing through like a wildfire that consumes even the hardiest brush and chaparral. It's incredibly dangerous, difficult to contain, and requires the cooperation of the whole community at large.
Wyoming (our least populated state) has 17 (of 23) counties with fewer than six people per square mile (which is the definition of "frontier" by federal agencies); and the overall state averages just 5.17 people per square mile! Forty-seven percent of Wyoming's residents live in these so-called "frontier" areas of the state, and when we look at these numbers from a public health perspective, the isolation they connote indicates a prime breeding ground for drug and alcohol abuse.
Though often commonly referred to as a "city problem," hard data shows us that substance abuse has long been a plague on rural areas. It's been suggested that human isolation may be a factor, as well as relatively low law enforcement numbers per private citizen, but whatever the root cause, we know that adults living in rural areas have higher rates of alcohol and methamphetamine use, and that the rates of prescription drug and heroin abuse have grown indiscriminately in towns of every size, across the country.
Other commonly accepted contributing factors for rural substance abuse include:
When these contributing factors result in drug and alcohol abuse, there are usually secondary detrimental effects that result in physical and social health consequences, such as poor academic performance, poorer health status, changes in brain structure, and increased risk of death from overdose and suicide.
When someone is struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, especially in a rural area, it can feel like they are the only one carrying the heavy burden. Addiction is a cancer that pulls us slowly, seductively, away from our family, friends, and society at large until our window to the world has shrunk so small that it feels impossible to suck in any air. We live only for our next fix, our next sip, our next rush. And one day, in between the highs, we look around, and find ourselves alone.
Studies have shown that young people (especially those living in rural areas) are particularly vulnerable to the addiction vortex.
Among youth aged 12-17 in Wyoming, the annual average of marijuana use was 6.6% (or about 3,000). This is particularly concerning because we know that marijuana can impede and stunt brain development in minors. It can also sometimes be a starting point on the road to harder and far more addictive drugs.
Among youth aged 12-17, the annual average of past-month alcohol usage was 10.3% (or about 5,000.) This is similar to the US national average, which is 10.1%. More alarming still is the fact that among young adults aged 18-25, the annual average of past-month binge alcohol use was 39.2% (or roughly 24,000!)
Among people aged 12 and older in Wyoming, 3.7% (or roughly 18,000) reported abusing prescription painkillers in the past year. Wyoming (like the rest of the United States) has seen opioids/painkillers prescribed at alarming rates.
And among young adults aged 18-25, the annual average of opioid/prescription painkiller use in Wyoming, was 1.4% (or about 1,000.) When you look at the relatively low population of Wyoming overall, this number carries extra weight.
Among people aged 12 years and older in Wyoming, the annual average of past-year heroin use was .11% (or roughly 1,000.) We know from past data that heroin use often follows prescription painkiller use, because Heroin is cheaper and often easier to obtain. Thanks to prescription painkillers, heroin has taken root in Wyoming just as it has throughout most of the greater US. One evil tends to feed into the other.
Given these somber statistics, it's no wonder that among young adults in Wyoming aged 18-25, serious thoughts of suicide are ALSO on the rise, reported at 8.9% (or roughly 5,000.) And, of that same age group, 6.7% (or roughly 4,000) reported serious mental illness. The most common mood disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and personality disorders often overlap with drug or alcohol addiction. It's a correlative relationship that is particularly heartbreaking, as these conditions affect the way you move throughout the world—the way you feel, behave, interact with others and perceive your environment.
In the past, substance abuse has been especially hard to combat in rural communities because of limited resources for prevention, treatment, and recovery. But thankfully today even the most remote areas of rural states like Wyoming have resources that people struggling with addiction can reach out to for help.
Much like the firefighters that beat back the immense forest fires every year, Wyoming is meeting the alcohol and substance abuse challenge with the vigor typical of its hardy residents-by looking it square in the eye.
"Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced," wrote the late James Baldwin. This is true of every addiction, no matter the substance.
If you are battling drug or alcohol addiction and are ready to seek help, there are multiple ways to take the first step and ultimately break the cycle. As the famous cowboy saying goes, "If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging." And all it takes is the first step.
Help is here, no matter where you live, urban or rural, near or far.
Wyoming State Facts
Wyoming Population: 493,502
Law Enforcement Officers in Wyoming: 1,657
Wyoming Prison Population: 5,200
Wyoming Probation Population: 4,477
Violent Crime Rate National Ranking: 39
2004 Federal Drug Seizures in Wyoming
Cocaine: 0.1 kgs.
Heroin: 0.0 kgs.
Methamphetamine: 1.0 kgs.
Marijuana: 21.0 kgs.
Ecstasy: 0 tablets
Methamphetamine Laboratories: 19 (DEA, state, and local)
Wyoming Drug Situation: Mexican poly-drug trafficking organizations dominate the distribution of methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana in Wyoming. Local traffickers are supplied by distributors in Colorado, the Southwest Border states, and Mexico. In recent years, methamphetamine has emerged as the illicit drug of choice in Wyoming. Club drugs, such as MDMA, have also grown in popularity. Marijuana is widely abused throughout the state. Cocaine is available to users, but is less popular than methamphetamine. Demand for heroin in Wyoming is not particularly high.
Cocaine in Wyoming: Wyoming cocaine prices have remained stable, but demand for the drug has declined in recent years. Ounce quantities of cocaine are available in and around Cheyenne and Laramie. Crack can be found in the state but not in significant quantities.
Heroin in Wyoming: While it does not present a significant law enforcement problem in Wyoming, Mexican heroin is available. Most heroin found in Wyoming comes from sources in Utah.Methamphetamine in Wyoming: Methamphetamine is the most serious drug threat in Wyoming. In recent years, methamphetamine arrests have exceeded arrests for all other drugs; however clandestine methamphetamine laboratory seizures have begun to decline. Methamphetamine abuse is of great concern to Wyoming law enforcement, due to its correlation with violent crime, domestic violence, and child abuse.
Club Drugs in Wyoming: Club drugs such as GHB and MDMA can be found in Wyoming, and most come from sources of supply in Colorado. Although not as popular, LSD and psilocybin mushrooms are popular “recreational drugs” on college campuses.
Marijuana in Wyoming: Marijuana is widely abused in Wyoming. Most of the marijuana encountered is of Mexican origin, although higher-potency marijuana from British Columbia, Canada, can be found as well. Additionally, marijuana is grown in remote outdoor areas of the state, and in smaller indoor grows.
Other Drugs in Wyoming: The diversion of prescription controlled substances of concern in Wyoming. The most commonly abused are depressants, such as Valium (diazepam), and semi-synthetic narcotic painkillers, such as Vicodin (hydrocodone), Dilaudid (hydromorphone), and Percocet and Percodan (oxycodone).
DEA Mobile Enforcement Teams: This cooperative program with state and local law enforcement counterparts was conceived in 1995 in response to the overwhelming problem of drug-related violent crime in towns and cities across the nation. There have been 409 deployments completed resulting in 16,763 arrests of violent drug criminals as of February 2004. There has been one MET deployment in the State of Wyoming since the inception of the program, in Park County.
DEA Regional Enforcement Teams: This program was designed to augment existing DEA division resources by targeting drug organizations operating in the United States where there is a lack of sufficient local drug law enforcement. This Program was conceived in 1999 in response to the threat posed by drug trafficking organizations that have established networks of cells to conduct drug trafficking operations in smaller, non-traditional trafficking locations in the United States. Nationwide, there have been 22 deployments completed resulting in 608 arrests of drug trafficking criminals as of February 2004. There have been no RET deployments in the State of Wyoming.
DEA Special Topics: The State of Wyoming participates in the Rocky Mountain HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), which is based in Denver, Colorado.