Combating an opioid epidemic of this scale is no small task, but there are solutions.
Since the 1980s, the United States government has waged an extremely controversial “War on Drugs,” targeting substances such as cocaine and marijuana. In the modern era, a new front has opened: prescription painkiller abuse.
These prescription painkillers belong to a broad class of drugs known as opioids, which include medications such as Oxycontin, Vicoden, and Fentanyl. Opioids are commonly prescribed to combat pain, treating both temporary and chronic discomfort. Opioids mimic natural chemicals created by the body, which then connect to neurotransmitters in the brain, blocking pain, dulling the senses, and giving the user a satisfying sensation by releasing the pleasure chemical dopamine. The release of dopamine stems from the body’s natural tendency to reinforce pleasurable behaviors and reward its repetition. However, through the body’s generous release of dopamine, many who take opioids intensify their usage or turn to new and stronger drugs, such as heroin, to chase the high they once felt using painkillers.
This problem leads to a simple truth: increasing the usage also increases the chances of opioid poisoning. Often, when the body becomes desensitized to the effects of the opioids, addicts turn to more severe drugs, like heroin. Roughly 80% of heroin addicts began as opioid abusers and an estimated 5% of opioid users turn to heroin. Opioids are not only dangerous substances when taken on their own, but they also provide a gateway into more illicit and dangerous drugs.
During the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies that developed these opioids ensured that they were not addictive. As a result, physicians began prescribing them to patients in large volumes. Between 1991 and 2013, the number of prescriptions for opioids nearly tripled, from 76 million to 201 million prescriptions written per year. This inevitably lead to the proliferation of abuse among patients prescribed with these opioids. Since 1999, the number of deaths caused by opioid overdose has quadrupled; in 2012, it was estimated that approximately 2.1 million Americans suffered from prescription medication addiction or abuse.
Opioid addiction has become increasingly deadly, outpacing even cocaine and heroin as the leading cause of drug-related deaths. Every day, approximately 90 Americans die from complications related to opioid abuse. Furthermore, opioid addiction affects the economy, with the Center for Disease Control estimating that opioid abuse costs the U.S. 78 billion dollars a year, by totaling the costs of healthcare, criminal justice actions and rehabilitation, and the loss of productivity by workers abusing these opioids.
Combating a drug epidemic on such a scale is no small task; however, the NIH and HHS have released a five-point plan to promote awareness of the epidemic and to roll back the abuse of prescription opioids. The plan states: “improving access to treatment and recovery services, promoting the use of overdose-reversing drugs, strengthening the understanding of the epidemic through better public surveillance, providing support for cutting-edge research on pain and addiction and advancing better practices for pain management.” To put these ideals into practice, the NIH needs to secure the cooperation of the rest of the U.S. government. Unless reliable legislation is laid down to combat opioid addiction, the epidemic cannot be stopped.
The legislation should be education and rehabilitation-oriented. The first piece of legislation must target the medical community by placing tougher restrictions on which patients are eligible to receive prescription opioids, and force pharmaceutical companies to more thoroughly test the effects and addictiveness of released pain medications. By policing which patients are at risk for opioid addiction, alternative painkilling techniques and medications will be proliferated, while the frequency of opioid abuse will fall.
Currently, the criminal justice system mostly views opioid addiction as a criminal issue. While it is true that addicts don’t usually get charged for merely opioid possession, it would still be beneficial to change the perception of opioid addiction from a criminal issue to a health issue. Convictions should be handled more delicately.
Incarceration, without any treatment, does not pose a solution to preventing recidivism. During the incarceration of opioid abusers, prisons should be required to provide addiction combating drugs, and after they get out, they should receive mandatory participation in programs such as Narcotics Anonymous or living in halfway houses specifically designed for drug addicts. This is a great way to raise awareness about the consequences of abusing drugs.
Opioid addiction is a terrible affliction, which can not only kill the abuser but also puts a social and financial toll on the entire United States. Only by directly targeting the medical and criminal justice community through legislation, can this epidemic be brought to an end.