What Is the Opioid Epidemic?

The epidemic of Opioid abuse has destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives in the United States. Many people have died from Opioid overdoses, and many more now suffer from debilitating addiction to drugs that they first used to relieve pain upon the recommendation of a doctor. This silent catastrophe has unleashed death and misery across the country for over two decades, yet only recently have policymakers and the public been devoting greater resources to the problem. Opioid addiction is a terrible and life-threatening burden, one which no one chooses to bear, but there is always hope. With personal determination and support from family, friends, and recovery experts, anyone can overcome the power of Opioids and regain their life and freedom.

Overview of the Opioid Epidemic

The word “epidemic” is usually used in reference to an infectious disease which is devastating a specific population in a certain area at a particular time. Although Opioid abuse is not literally an infectious disease, the crisis of addiction and overdose which Opioid abuse has caused in the United States is comparable to any epidemic in the recent history of the industrialized world.

Every day in the United States of America, about 130 people die from an Opioid overdose. From 1999 to 2017, Opioids claimed the lives of 399,230 Americans. Since the late 1990s, the number of Opioid deaths which have occurred each year has steadily risen. There were 47,600 overdose deaths in the United States which involved at least one Opioid in 2017, a six-fold increase from the number of Americans who suffered a fatal Opioid overdose in 1999. In only four years, from 2013 to 2017, Opioid deaths significantly increased in 35 states, a harrowing reality for which the growing prevalence of illegally manufactured Fentanyl and other synthetic Opioids is responsible. By 2013, the Opioid epidemic had cost the American economy $78.5 billion, an economic calamity which has almost certainly worsened in the last five years.

The Opioid Epidemic Has Been Fueled By Prescription OpioidsEvery person whom Opioids destroy is valuable and important. The victims of Opioid addiction are parents, children, siblings, and spouses. They are typically productive and law-abiding citizens with no experience with crime or drug abuse, yet the addictive effects of Opioids on the brain are so powerful that many people begin to become addicts after using legally prescribed Opioids to alleviate pain, such as after surgery or an injury. The Opioid epidemic began when doctors started to more frequently prescribe Opioid painkillers at the behest of pharmaceutical corporations who claimed that their products were not addictive. From 2006 to 2016, doctors in the United States issued over 200,000,000 Opioid prescriptions every year. The number of Opioid prescriptions fell slightly to 191,218,272 in 2017. Opioid painkillers which doctors commonly prescribe in the United States include OxyContin® and Percocet® (both manufactured with the Opioid Oxycodone), Vicodin® (manufactured with Hydrocodone), and Kadian® (manufactured with Morphine).

Many people are able to use Opioids without any long-term side effects, but about 20% to 30% of people who take prescription painkillers misuse them, often by taking too many too quickly. Between 8% to 12% of patients who abuse prescription Opioids develop an Opioid abuse disorder characterized by tolerance and dependence, the forerunner of addiction. People with an Opioid abuse disorder often attempt to obtain more Opioids, even those which are illegally manufactured, and about 5% of them will experiment with Heroin, an Opioid which caused over 15,000 deaths in 2017.

The Opioid Epidemic and the Law

Despite the consequences of the Opioid epidemic, Opioids are legal to use, possess, and manufacture as medication. Doctors are legally permitted to prescribe Opioids to their patients. Under the Controlled Substances Act, which categorizes drugs into five groups called “schedules” based upon their medical usefulness and potential to cause addiction, the federal government classifies most Opioids as Schedule 2 drugs. Hydrocodone, Methadone, Codeine, Morphine, Hydromorphone, Oxycodone, and Fentanyl are all Schedule 2 Opioids, which means they are highly addictive and that no one may use them lawfully without a written prescription from a doctor. Heroin is a Schedule 1 controlled substance which is completely illegal to use or possess for any reason.

Because most Opioids are Schedule 2 controlled substances, manufacturing Opioids without authorization and using and distributing them without a prescription is illegal. In the United States, drug traffickers sell illegally-manufactured Opioids and Heroin to people who are no longer able to obtain Opioid prescriptions. Drug traffickers sometimes lace synthetic Opioids into other illegal drugs such as Methamphetamine, or they fraudulently present them as painkillers. Opioids which are manufactured against the law and without medical oversight often carry higher risks of overdose than prescription Opioids.

The Opioid Epidemic and the Government

The humanitarian and economic costs of the Opioid epidemic have recently prompted action from the federal government and the state governments. In 2018, President Donald Trump signed a law which both houses of Congress approved with overwhelming support from members of both political parties. The provisions of the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act include reforming Medicare and Medicaid to better help patients with Opioid addiction and promoting education about the risks of Opioids. In 2017, the President declared the Opioid epidemic a public health emergency. The Department of Health and Human Services has granted over $1 billion to states and community health centers which are working to treat and research Opioid addiction.

Meanwhile, state governments are investing in medical treatment for Opioid addiction and educational initiatives about Opioid prescriptions and abuse. Many states are creating programs to distribute the medication Naloxone (or Narcan), which reverses the effects of an Opioid overdose, while also imposing tougher regulations on Opioid prescribers. Almost half of the states have also enacted “Good Samaritan laws,” which protect people from criminal prosecution who call 911 to get help for themselves or someone else who is having an overdose on a controlled substance. Some states are also filing lawsuits against the pharmaceutical corporations which have been marketing the painkillers which have caused the epidemic.

Fighting the Opioid Epidemic

If you or someone you care about is struggling to overcome addiction to prescription painkillers and Opioids, you should contact a dedicated treatment specialist to learn more about what to do and where to go. Recovery begins by taking a first step. There are over 14,000 substance abuse recovery centers across the country where anyone can get help and return to living life without Opioids.