A U.S. Opioid Health Epidemic, Part 1:  How It All Began

I apologize for this two part series on drug addiction because of its sobering theme at our holiday season. I do, however, know that it is a subject, increasing in public awareness, that needs to be discussed at any time of the year. 

According to Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, “In 2008, drug overdoses, mostly from opiates, surpassed auto fatalities as the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States.” The author refers to opiates as both drugs derived from the opium poppy (morphine and heroin) and drugs derived indirectly from it. These indirect medicines are more chemically produced painkiller opioids prescribed by doctors. The above statistic, therefore, encompasses both the highly addictive forming painkillers and heroin. For the purpose of this Part 1 article, I will also include both classifications. Part 2 will refer to only chemically produced painkiller opioids used by seniors.

“Empire of Pain” written by Patrick Radden Keefe and published in the October 30, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, gives us this quote: “Since 1999, two hundred thousand Americans have died from overdoses related to OxyContin and other prescription opioids.” Keefe states, “Many addicts soon find that prescription painkillers are too expensive or too difficult to obtain and turn to heroin. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four out of five people who try heroin today started with prescription painkillers.” Heroin addiction can happen to any neighborhood, class, gender, or color of race. It can begin, for example, when a high school athlete suffers a painful injury and is given an expensive addicting opioid drug. When he or she can no longer afford that opioid, the youngster might switch to $10 a bag heroin to satisfy his/her addiction.  

What then is the brief history causing this drug crisis today? “Empire of Pain” explains that in the past, doctors were hesitant about prescribing strong opioids except for end-of-life palliative care and acute cancer pain due to the medicines’ highly addictive qualities. The immersion of OxyContin into the drug market in 1995 was considered a medical breakthrough because it was mistakenly marketed, with a low risk of addiction, to help patients suffering from moderate to severe pain. Thus began the opioid crisis we have with us today. Keefe adds, “The most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that 145 Americans now die every day from opioid overdoses.”

The McHenry Substance Abuse Coalition is presently working on gaining input on how to implement its Illinois Opioid Action Plan. It aims to cut the number of opioid-related deaths by one-third by 2020. Another course of action for the future appears to be the need for more government-intervention research on safe and effective medical uses of marijuana, now legal in twenty-nine states and D.C. This drug is believed to be very effective in relieving debilitating pain without addiction and is almost impossible to overdose on. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association: “States with medical marijuana/cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate…compared with states without medical marijuana/cannabis laws.”

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