The Opioid Epidemic

More than 240 million prescriptions were written for  prescription opioids, enough to give every American their own bottle of pills in 2016.  Four in five new heroin users started out by misusing prescription opioids.

Every day in this country an average of 115 people die from opioid overdose.  You read that right.  According to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website, 115 people overdose and die on a daily basis from the chronic misuse of prescribed painkillers.  Class doesn’t matter.  Income level doesn’t matter.  Education doesn’t seem to matter.  From every level of society, people are dying from prescription painkiller overdose.  It is beyond epidemic.  It is beyond most people’s comprehension.  How can this be?  That’s 42,249 people in 2016 succumbing to prescription painkillers.

The name “opioid” is derived from the word “opium,” the infamous pain-killing, sleepy-high inducing, highly addictive drug that has been used since ancient times.  Opium comes from milky white latex that can be extracted from an immature seed pod of the opium poppy.

Prescription opioids are powerful pain-reducing medications that have been used to treat moderate to severe pain in many patients. 

All four categories deliver the same effect as the ancient opium latex method but some are synthesized in a laboratory.  Opioids may reduce or relieve pain in some patients but the prescription they are filling at the pharmacy counter is in the same category as the dreaded, ugly word you were warned about since you were a kid:  heroin.

Opioids, both prescription and illicit, are the main driver of drug overdose related deaths in the U.S.  Heroin addiction started to make headlines in the 1970s as iconic rock stars Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all passed away due to their addiction and subsequent overdose related deaths.  During the Vietnam War, it is estimated that ten to fifteen percent of U.S. servicemenwere addicted to the drug as it was easily accessible in Vietnam. Prescription opioids entered the market in the 1970s but didn’t catch on right away as doctors were apprehensive about prescribing them.  So, how did we get to where we are today?

By the 1990s, about 100 million Americans were estimated to live with chronic pain.  Drug companies worked with the federal government to expand opioid treatments at astonishing rates.  Between 1991 and 2001, painkiller prescriptions  tripled from 76 million to 219 million per year.  By 2012, one-in-three drug users were being prescribed drugs more powerful than morphine. By 2017, some on Capitol Hill were pointing at pharmaceutical companies and unethical sales tactics as the causation of the epidemic.  One thing is for sure:  the opioid epidemic is upon the U.S. and it’s getting worse.

Perhaps the scariest part of the opioid crisis is the newest and strongest threat:  fentanyl.  50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, only 2mg of fentanyl are needed to trigger a fatal overdose.  According to the DEA, one kilogram of fentanyl can be purchased from China for less than $5,000 and resold on the street in the U.S. for $1.5 million.

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