America’s Opioid Crisis
If you turn on any news channel or look at any social media site nowadays, you will undoubtedly hear all about the “opioid crisis” that is facing America now. The same questions seem to be on everyone’s mind. What is it, where did it start, is this a real thing, and what do we do about it.
Well, the answers to all of those questions seem to be loaded. Let’s start with exactly what is an opioid drug. The opioid drug seems to be defined as a drug that is derived from the poppy plant, such as morphine, heroin, and other less than synthetic drugs with mostly opiate properties. These drugs are used primarily for pain control. These are the drugs derived from the poppy plant itself and opium is the drug that is in the poppy plant. There are also the synthetic versions of these drugs such as fentanyl and methadone. While methadone is used mostly to control the withdrawal symptoms of the cessation of opiates, fentanyl is used mostly as a pre-surgery anesthetic and is used to control the pain associated with chronic illnesses like cancer, etc.
Statistics show that approximately 115 people die every day from an overdose of prescription painkillers and other opium products such as heroin. Economically the healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement have a whopping 78.5 billion dollar price tag.
This began in the late 1990s when the pharmacy companies stated that Americans would not become addicted to opioids. Then doctors began prescribing them more and more. This led to an increase in addiction rates and overdose deaths and complications. In 2015, 33,000 Americans died from overdoses including prescription painkillers, the same year it has been stated that two million Americans fell victim to substance abuse disorders due to prescription painkillers and synthetic opioids and heroin itself added another 590,000 to that total according to drugabuse.gov.
It is estimated that about 20-30 percent of those that are prescribed opioid painkillers, misuse them. In that group of people, an estimated 10% will develop substance abuse disorder for the opiates. However, that also includes the number of those that will become addicted to heroin also. So here is where we begin to question if this is truly a crisis in all normal aspects of the word crisis. Especially when alcoholism claims about 16.6 million victims a year according to addictioncenter.com. Methamphetamine accounts for 530,000 new addicts per year and 103,000 er visits per year according to drugabuse.com. If you want to talk about the price tag alcoholism accounts for 249 billion dollars per year in healthcare and treatment, as well as criminal justice involvement.
So we should be asking the question at this point where the actual crisis lies and then what is it we are doing wrong and what can we do differently at this point. Now while it is true that some people who misuse prescription painkillers eventually move on to heroin the numbers are relatively low at only about five percent. While that does not make it alright, it does make it less than what we are led to believe. From July 2016 until September 2017 overdoses did increase about thirty percent, this presents the question of maybe doctors should only give out prescriptions for a week or two at a time. It seems that when they prescribe for a month or longer this is when we begin to experience the overdoses. Maybe if they were given in smaller quantities at a time, such as every two weeks or so people would not have the amount available to them to have a deadly overdose. This does put more responsibility on the pharmacists and doctors, but at the end of the day, the overall safety measure may be somewhat productive.
Maybe we should look at what is causing the need for such an increase in opioid use, to begin with. People are in more pain. This is the situation plain and simple. So why are they in more pain. Well, there are increases in traffic accidents which result in severe injuries and the need for ongoing pain treatment. The actual labor jobs in the United States have been found to be more demanding physically, just to keep up with the growth the country is experiencing. Safety regulations are found quite often to be very lax. The fact that the average American is being forced to work much later in their lives just to survive, pay the bills, and feed their families is starting to play a significant role in the problem versus what it was thirty or forty years ago.
The cost of living keeps going up, so the American people are forced to work harder and longer just to survive while actual wages are not growing to meet the demands. Even sitting for extended amounts of time at a desk looking at a computer screen has pretty profoundly affected workers. This and the time demand on the American people to do everything expected of them does not leave very much room for self-care. People are expected to take care of their children, be members of two or three civic groups, have their kids involved in everything they can involve more in, work harder to have the latest gadgets, newest cars, and bigger houses. People simply do not have the time to search for more natural or less dangerous solutions to chronic pain. Our food is injected with heaven knows what that robs our bodies of its necessary nutrients, our air and water are polluted which puts a few more toxins into our bodies it is all a very vicious cycle.
So what can we do to combat the problem? Well, we can begin by having more treatment options, and making the access easier to get those without fear of criminal prosecution, or fear of Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) taking children from homes, etc. That is the first step de-stigmatizing the addiction and de-criminalizing it to an extensive degree. When people are in the treatment programs make access to their children and families easier even making it a possibility to relocate themselves their spouses and children to a treatment facility campus but possibly in a separate living quarter where they can build and maintain the bonds they do have because it has been shown time and again how these things and a good support system greatly help the addict recover.
Also, let’s make it a requirement that employers hire recovering addicts. Now maybe under some stricter guidelines such as increased drug testing etc., but hiring none the less. This way just because someone has been under addiction treatment they can still have the ability to land back on their feet and do something for themselves, their families, and overall their communities. These actions build the human being up rather than tearing them down. It lets them know that there is a light at the end of that very dark tunnel.
Let’s also look at requiring insurance companies and state Medicaid programs to cover alternative methods of pain relief such as yoga, massage therapy, aromatherapy, meditation, acupuncture, acupressure. These methods have proven to be very successful in controlling pain to a considerable degree. The problem is most people can not afford them, and so, therefore, it is easier to pop a pill. Maybe even go so far as to require a recovering addict to seek these things versus living with the pain or relapsing. Legalizing marijuana would also be beneficial in these cases. The benefits of marijuana on controlling pain, anxiety, and such have been shown time and time again. This would also bring a massive boom to local and state economies and eliminate a good portion of the black market for marijuana. There is also kratom which is currently being looked at as being classified as a controlled substance by the FDA and deal. When the bottom line is it has also been shown to be non-addictive, and not dangerous at all and very effective at controlling pain, with some folks even claiming it is the only thing that has saved their lives.
These are people recovering from opiate addiction, as well as other “hard” drugs. So we need to quit criminalizing and stigmatizing everything we don’t agree with and looking at the other options that are available to us. We need to start looking at what is best for the people and not the pharmaceutical companies and realize that no matter the amount of money we are helping big Pharma and others interested in the monetary benefits of any addiction and realize that the greater population is responsible. There are other ways out there we need to think about them and utilize them.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.