How Did We Get Here?
Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.
They kill more people annually than car crashes and gun crime combined. In 2016 alone, overdoses had a higher death toll than all US military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined.
The group of drugs accounting for the largest percentage of overdose deaths is opioids. Opioids act on opioid-receptors to produce morphine-like effects. Medically, they are primarily used for pain relief, including anaesthesia. Since the year 2000, the rate of opioid overdose has tripled in the US.
A group experiencing one of the fastest growing rates of new heroin users is 18-22 year-olds, in both suburban and rural areas. In the past decade alone, the drug overdose death rate among this group has more than doubled.
The number of deaths from opioid overdose is now reaching levels similar to that of those from HIV at the peak of its epidemic in the late 80's and early 90's.
The Link Between Opioid Prescriptions and Overdose Death Rates
In the past 17 years, the prescription of opioid pain relievers has boomed.
The number of prescriptions for opioid painkillers in the USA has quadrupled since 1999.
In fact, in 2012, there were 12 states in which the number of opioid prescriptions written that year actually exceeded the number of people living in those states.
45% of people who use heroin were previously addicted to prescription opioid painkillers.
This is not a coincidence.
Opioids are effective painkillers. There was a time when they were prescribed freely. They generate a euphoric effect when taken, but the pharmaceutical companies that manufactured them assured doctors their potential for addiction was low.
This turned out to be an intentionally misleading statement. Unlike NSAID's (painkillers like ibuprofen and naproxen) which work to lessen pain by reducing inflammation, opioids actually do very little to heal the root cause of any pain. This means patients often end up taking them for long periods of time, sometimes with no significant improvement in their pain levels when not medicated. This inevitably leads to dependency.
When doctors started to realize just how addictive these drugs really were, they began to limit their availability. This meant that those already addicted to them were no longer as able to obtain them legally. They experienced withdrawal, their pain returned and many were unable to work. With little understanding or help available, many of these individuals turned to street opioids like heroin to get the same pain-killing and withdrawal-preventing effects as the prescription opioids they were taking previously.
The booming rate at which opioid-containing painkillers were being prescribed at this time directly paralleled the jump in fatal heroin and other opioid overdoses.
Above- Judy Rummler, just one of many to lose a child to opioid addiction, was recently featured in the New York Times article entitled "Drug Overdoses Propel Rise in Mortality Rates of Young Whites" by Gina Kolata and Sarah Cohen (photo by Corey Perrine for The New York Times). Here, she holds a photo of her sons Steve and Jeff, at her home in Bonita Springs, Fla. Steve died of a heroin overdose after becoming addicted to OxyContin, which was prescribed to him for a back injury.
(click on titles to be taken to sites)
-Understanding America's opioid epidemic- Pacific Standard
- 'Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong'- Johann Hari's TED Talk on the problem with the way we currently view addiction
-'President Obama Speaks at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit' (See video above)- The White House
-'The Antidote'- The New York Times
- 'Preventing Opiate Overdose Deaths: Examining Objections to Take-Home Naloxone'- US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health
-Heroin abuse trends- The Gateway Fondation
-Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths — United States, 2000–2014- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
-America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse- The National Institute on Drug Abuse