By Boyd Matheson

In Utah, and across the nation, we have seen the rise of an opioid epidemic that continues to explode exponentially. It is a topic we have been uncomfortable discussing, but is clearly an issue that must be discussed.

There have been a few legislators locally and nationally who have tackled the opioid epidemic head on. We applaud their efforts – and recognize that there is much more that needs to be done.

In some ways America’s approach to the opioid problem is similar to the famous poem written by Joseph Malin in 1895 titled, “The Ambulance Down in the Valley.” You remember the story of the tiny town, which boasted of a mountain lookout with magnificent views of the valley. While the scenes were spectacular, the cliff was unacceptably dangerous. Many local citizens and passing visitors alike had tragically fallen from the cliff to the valley below.

Some of the citizens in the town advocated for putting a fence around the cliff, but others more persuasively made the case for simply parking an ambulance down below in the valley.

“For the cliff is all right, if you’re careful,” they said,

“And, if folks even slip and are dropping,

It isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much

As the shock down below when they’re stopping.”

So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,

Quick forth would these rescuers sally;

To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,

With their ambulance down in the valley.

So, the citizens relied on the ambulance to deal with the ever-present and potentially lethal problem.

Then an old sage remarked: “It is a marvel to me

That people give far more attention

To repairing results than to stopping the cause,

When they’d much better aim at prevention.

Let us stop at its source all this mischief,” cried he,

“Come neighbors and friends, let us rally;

If the cliffs we will fence we might almost dispense

With the ambulance down in the valley.”

As it relates to our opioid cliff, we have added many new tools to the ambulance down in the valley, including vital overdose-reversing injections, needle exchanges, and counseling and rehabilitation programs for those who have become addicted. Unfortunately, we have done far too little to build the fence at the top of the cliff. It is time for a fence-building discussion between families, churches, legislators, doctors, health care providers and drug companies.

The opioid cliff is but one ledge where we would be wise to focus more on fence-building instead of ambulance production. Many of our state and federal programs designed to deal with poverty, homelessness, long-term unemployment, health care and hunger have spawned fleets of ambulances parked in the valley of government assistance.

As James Malin concluded, “To rescue the fallen is good, but ’tis best

To prevent other people from falling.”

We must get better at building fences in our communities, and when appropriate through government. In areas where we lack effective solutions, it is usually because we avoided the uncomfortable conversation.

For Sutherland Institute, this is Boyd Matheson. Thanks for engaging – because principle matters.

This post is an edited transcript of Principle Matters, a weekly radio commentary broadcast on several radio stations across the country. The podcast can be found below.

Receive this broadcast each week directly via iTunes by clicking here

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Boyd Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute. Boyd, who served as chief of staff for Utah Senator Mike Lee in Washington, D.C., has a wealth of experience as a coach, executive adviser and business consultant. In addition to his service as Sen. Lee’s chief of staff, Boyd most recently built a successful political consulting firm advising national and state elected officials and candidates. From 2005 to 2012, he served as president of Trillium Strategies, a consulting firm focused on branding, business transformation and operational excellence. Boyd and his wife, Debbie, have five children and four grandchildren.

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