Opioid obsession: Amdrica's next epidemic
In 2016, opiate abuse was responsible for the death of over 60,000 Americans. All data implicate a worsening of the situation in 2017. Now, in 2018, it seems that America’s ‘War on Drugs’ isn’t only waged on drug dealers; the opioid epidemic is unique in the fact that the front lines are obscure. The war is waging in the medicine cabinet at home. The war is waging at pharmacies and doctors’ offices. The war is waging on the streets and in the workplace. The target: any and all Americans.
As medical technology and innovation improves, so too does the intensity and strength of drugs that are used to treat everyday maladies. Rather than dealing with infamous drugs, such as OxyContin or Morphine, members of the medical community are going up against ‘Super Drugs’ the likes of Fentanyl and laced heroin. To lend some perspective, Fentanyl can be up to 50 times stronger than morphine, and it only takes 3 milligrams (the equivalent of a few grains of salt) to trigger a potentially fatal overdose; a standard dosage for a pain reliever, like Ibuprofen, contains 200mg of active ingredients. If that doesn’t scare you, it should.
In order to keep demand high, drug dealers and producers are lacing their heroin and cocaine products with Fentanyl. This makes it all too easy for drug users to form habits, buy larger amounts of the drugs, and fatally overdose. In a recent conversation about the growing dangers of opiates to society, a local drug enforcement officer put it to me this way: ‘10 years ago, when we found someone with 5-6 bags of heroin, we could safely say that he was distributing. Now, we find someone with 50-60 bags, and that might only be enough for the day for that particular addict.’ Don’t forget, those 50-60 bags are much stronger than their former selves, and much cheaper: a single dose can go for between 15 and 20 USD on the streets. Thus, it appears that the War on Drugs has come to our neighborhoods, and it’s just the beginning.
One of the major barriers to solving this drug epidemic is the sheer lack of resources to treat existing drug users, and guide them through recovery. After soliciting information from a few local clinics that deal with drug rehabilitation, I found that they are not legally permitted to stage an intervention without the express consent of the addict or the addict’s immediate family. The glaring problem: the average drug user’s brain chemistry is so changed by the addiction that, even if he/she wants to come clean, the opioids have become a physical necessity, as important as oxygen. In that situation, it is incredibly difficult to place the user into rehabilitation. This is not to mention that rehabilitation from opiates, due to the intensity of the addiction, can be life-threatening if not performed under professional supervision, and, even then, is not always a guarantee that the user will remain clean. Quitting ‘cold turkey’ is simply not an option.
The other side to the crisis is the growing number of opiate users in the United States. Not only are existing addicts using more of these substances, but the substances are so
abundant that nearly every American has direct and express access to some form of opiate. One of the questions that many people trying to understand the opioid crisis ask is just how someone can become a regular heroin user. Well, unfortunately, it is no longer atypical for the use of recreational and prescription drugs to manifest into full-blown opiate addiction. Let me demonstrate.
When the average person steps into a doctor’s office complaining of pain, there is a very high chance that this person will walk out with a note for a prescription-strength painkiller. Following wisdom-tooth surgery, patients pop Percocet. After a painful knee replacement, patients reach for bottles of OxyContin. In many cases, the number of pills being disbursed is utterly superfluous. When recovering from a cholecystectomy, I was prescribed a strong painkiller; by the time that my pain had subsided and I was no longer in need of the medication, I found that the vast majority of the pills remained in the bottle. The question was, where would those pills end up? In many states across the country, the government has enacted programs for the proper disposal of excess prescriptions. However, at a moment in time when Tide has to release a public statement addressing the danger of ingesting its laundry detergent, how accountable is the American public? More often than not, excess prescriptions fall into the wrong hands, and that is where the problem begins. Now, add to that the compulsion with which drug users seek to obtain their substance of choice, the accessibility (both financial and physical) of hardcore opioids, and the increasing amount of these drugs that are circulating around the world, and you have an epidemic.
There is an adapted story of scripture that I like to recite in situations similar to the one at hand: the starfish story. The abridged version goes like this: there was once a wise man that walked along the beach. In the distance, he watched as a young boy knelt amongst thousands upon thousands of starfish that had washed upon the shore, and seemed to traverse the length of the beach. The wise man walked up to the boy as he picked up one of the starfish. ‘You will never make a difference. There are thousands of starfish here, and only one of you,’ said the wise man. The boy did not answer as he cupped the starfish in his hands and gently released it into the water. Then, he turned to the wise man and said, ‘It made a difference to that one.’ This is how we must approach the opioid epidemic.
Just as a marathon is run one step at a time, America’s drug problem will be solved one person at a time. Increasing the resources allocated to the treatment of addicts will alleviate the number of drug users who relapse and die from overdosing on these opiates. Awareness and education on the dangers of prescription drugs will aid in the prevention of new addicts. Finally, finding alternative methods to prescription-grade painkillers and how they are dispensed will curtail the accessibility of these dangerous drugs. So, although America is at war with drugs, Americans are a hearty people, and we aren’t ready to surrender just yet.