Even with huge efforts in place to fight the opioid epidemic, drug overdose deaths have reached an all-time high in America. Deaths from overdoses of prescription drugs and heroin continue to be the leading cause of unintentional death for Americans, rising 14% from 2013 to 2014.
Last year, 47,055 people died from drug overdoses. That’s 150% more deaths than the number of people killed in car crashes. And opioids are involved in over 60% of the total number of deaths associated with drug overdoses. Simply put, that is a staggering majority that needs to change.
Since the new millennium, opioid overdose deaths have risen substantially; a disturbing trend has become prevalent. Roughly 500,000 people have lost their lives to opioid drug overdoses since then.
But how exactly have we gotten to this point? How has something as invasive as heroin become so prominent?
The Business of Slowly Killing Our Own Citizens
Perhaps the most backwards thinking industry in the country, or even the world for that matter, is the collective of the entities that represent Big Pharma. We live in an era where there is always a ‘miracle cure’ or a heavily synthetic drug to solve our problems. There is not much sway on the front of nutrition, dietetics, or herbalism when it comes to health and wellness. This is due to a lack of foresight and a long-term approach.
In regards to painkillers, Americans over consume these prescriptions as much as they do fast food or dairy products. While Americans only make up less than 5% of the world’s population, we consume 80% of the world’s opioids, and 99% of the world’s hydrocodone. Citizens cling to these painkillers because they are helplessly addicted.
But what gets wishy washy is the high regard that we put on pill bottle labels. For example, it’s not uncommon for a person who’s been prescribed to take a painkiller such as hydrocodone for years at a time to still look down to ‘junkies’ who are addicted to heroin or opium.
The stigma is still there and it’s hypocritical to say the least. The similarities between prescribed drugs and street drugs are there. Those in a position to look down on drug addicts don’t want to admit it, but it’s just as possible for them to become legally addicted to drugs.
Zohydro and Fentanyl Are “Painkillers on Steroids”
As medical technology continues to progress, so do the potencies of prescription drugs. And increased availability of opioids is a byproduct. We’ve entered a realm of dangerous prescription drug dependencies and those drugs continue to change at an exponential rate.
Starting in the mid 1990’s, the opioid under the brand name Oxycontin began to see rapid rates of abuse. The modern equivalent to that disastrous drug is known as Zohydro.
Zohydro is an extended-release hydrocodone capsule, which means it’s prescribed in large milligram doses and usually without any over the counter painkiller additions. The effects are powerful, and the drug is oftentimes prescribed in doses up to ten times that of the standard 5 mg hydrocodone. It’s easy to see how this drug is abused, given its high potency.
Additionally, the intense narcotic Fentanyl has been claiming far too many lives in many parts of the country. The drug is much more powerful than heroin and is primarily used for cancer patients facing chemotherapy. Fentanyl has hit Ohio especially hard. In an article titled Fentanyl: A Deadly New Twist in the Drug Epidemic in Ohio the dangers of the drug are spelled out:
“Over the past year, the heroin epidemic in Ohio has taken a new and deadly twist. A dramatic surge in overdose deaths in the state has been attributed to a powerful painkiller called fentanyl that is often mixed with heroin. Fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin, and many users do not realize their heroin has been laced with this prescription painkiller. Whether mixed with heroin or taken on its own, fentanyl was involved in 502 overdose deaths in the state in 2014.”
Advocacy for Addicts
In addition to the overdose rates, stigmas aimed at opiate addicts—and all addicts for that matter—unfortunately exist. The vast majority of addicts certainly do not want to be addicted and crave a functional lifestyle. But it’s not a simple situation. They have been hit hard by something; a physical ailment, a mentally damaging experience, or any number of other disadvantageous circumstances. In this regard, the availability of drugs is oftentimes more consistent that the help these people need.
Doctors write scripts and drug dealers move dangerous street drugs. In an odd form of irony, doctors who are over-prescribing opiates are potentially as damaging as the dealers are.
One of my close friends who has extremely severe Crohn’s disease recently ran into an issue of being overprescribed narcotics. After several major complications and a multitude of surgeries related to his Crohn’s, my friend was prescribed narcotic painkillers to help curb his intense levels of pain. When hydrocodone wasn’t working, morphine was used, and the drug Percocet was prescribed for him at home. This is when everything spiraled out of control.
The pain he was facing was so extreme and the drugs were so powerful that he quickly started taking much more than the daily doses. Having never taken narcotics beforehand, my friend quickly became addicted without even realizing it. His doctor noticed that the drug was being overused, and instead of weaning him off, the approach taken was to cut out all narcotics, cold-turkey.
This approach is very problematic because rather than slowly getting him off the drugs in a safe way, there was little explanation and zero counseling offered. At this point, my friend was facing an immense amount of pain because he was still in recovery mode from his surgeries. And to make matters worse he was simultaneously having heavy drug withdrawals.
Around this timeframe my friend admitted to me that he had seriously debated finding and taking heroin for the first time. He was lost in all of this, and his body was confused and very sick. Fortunately, he made it through without caving, and I am beyond proud of him for remaining so strong. But this is not always the outcome.
While my friends case of Crohn’s is rather uncommon, the rate at which doctors are overprescribing is not so extraordinary. In this sense, opioid drug abuse exists in a multitude of levels. Addicts can be found on every level of society, and everyone from teachers, to parents, to politicians face addition.
The biting question remains, ‘what is the US doing to address this crucial issue?
President Obama and Macklemore Chime In
Recently, President Obama invited musician Macklemore to co-host a short video addressing the spike in heroin and opiate drug use in the US. This is what they had to say about the growing wave of overdoses in the country:
This video from the White House paints a hopeful picture. With over a billion dollars invested in a new budget that aims to inform and treat the public, we may start to see these disheartening statistics fade.
What’s certain is that the US is facing a drug epidemic and it’s paired with unfair stigmas that label many people as junkies. But the prescription drug abusers are no different, aside from their activity being labeled ‘legal.’
An excerpt from an article titled It’s Perfectly Okay To Hate Addiction, But Not The Addict summarizes my stance on addiction perfectly:
“What I need from you, my reader, whether you suffer from addiction yourself or you love someone who does, what I need from you is to have hope, have faith, and most importantly, give love. Your heart may very well get broken, beaten, and shattered from time to time, but sometimes even though you may feel as if someone does not deserve your love anymore, that is almost always when they need it the most. If you take anything from this, let it be this, love people through their storms, one day the storm will finally pass and you will be able to enjoy the sunshine together, but for now, grab your rain boots and umbrella and fight like hell.”