The United States is a great country. But it’s also a country with flaws, and problems. Imperfections and embarrassments. It was built on certain values, values that at the time made way for a novel nation. Yet even then, it was undermined by societal problems, problems that took centuries to fix. Improving our country is a job that no one person can undertake, and it’ll take us generations. It all starts at home, with family. We protect our own, watch out for our neighbors, and strive to create safer, better communities. And part and parcel with that dream is fighting against the things that tear apart our families and destroy our lives.
For decades, this country has been struggling with an invisible problem – over medication and prescription drug abuse. At the root of that problem is a little plant. A pretty little flowering plant, called the poppy. Opium poppy is the world’s source of opiates, a family of drugs that affect the mind by binding to our opioid receptors, numbing pain and creating a sense of euphoria and happiness.
At first, a good thing. But it’s also highly addictive – and that addiction can lead to months and years of suffering, and finally, death. Opioids like heroin, morphine, and illegally-distributed fentanyl have been problems for decades – but it’s the more recent wave of prescription opioids that triggered today’s opioid epidemic, which currently is claiming more lives under the age of 50 than any other known cause of death.
To understand the prescription drug abuse problem, we must know where it came from. And from there, we must find a way to safeguard our families from its influence, and help those around us struggling with addiction begin a new life without drugs.
America’s Fight Against Pain
It all began with pain. Pain is unavoidable. Every now and again, you’re bound to trip and fall. But most of us can learn to fall a little less, and hurt a little less.
Then there are those among us that always hurt, regardless of whether they fell or not. Chronic pain has always existed, but it’s only with our growing life expectancy and that it’s become more and more common. From rare diseases like fibromyalgia, work-related injuries, nerve problems like sciatica, aging pains and pain resulting from obesity and lifestyle-related diseases, chronic pain has been on a rise for a while.
Then, in the 90s, American doctors decided it was time for an official policy to declare a war on pain. It was specifically in the late 90s, when a panel issued guidelines for more prescription painkillers to help sufferers of chronic pain.
From there, “compassionate care” grew. Doctors were prescribing more medication, and state policy for various parts of the country became increasingly positive towards drug-related pain management. Over the course of a decade from ’97 to 2007, the consumption of opioids like methadone and oxycodone grew 13-fold and 9-fold respectively. This meant many were being prescribed far too much, which meant having a lot of unused medication – a problem to this day.
As sales of opioids skyrocketed, so did non-medical use and prescription drug abuse. While it wasn’t overwhelmingly common, those who suffered from chronic pain and took opioids were also most at risk for developing an addiction. And many did.
This lead to a massive jump in accidental overdoses. And ever since, the death toll has grown.
A Big Misunderstanding
Heroin, opium and oxycodone are all essentially the same thing, with varying degrees of potency. We’re talking about a drug that triggers a numbing effect, and makes you feel better – all while carrying an immense risk for addiction.
However, because the latter drug is prescribed by a doctor and not peddled by a drug dealer, it’s more trustworthy – and therein was the misunderstanding. Prescription drugs are still very dangerous, and not to be treated lightly. Drugs like morphine and oxycodone have their role to play in emergency rooms, and for end-of-life care – but overprescribing these medications to chronic pain patients is putting them in harm’s way – especially considering the potential ineffectiveness of opioids in treating chronic pain and potential for prescription drug abuse.
It’s Not Just Prescription Drug Abuse
Major steps have been taken to cut down on prescription drug abuse, particularly by restricting the pace at which doctors can distribute them. However, that has since given way to a new problem. With a dwindling legal supply of prescription opioids and growing grassroots movements and community efforts to reduce the number of pills in American families and households, those who already struggled with painkillers found a new, illegal means to satisfy their urge: heroin.
Heroin is an illegal substance, which means its production isn’t regulated or monitored for quality. This means it’s often cut with other substances to increase bulk, and infused with a more potent, cheaper synthetic drug to maintain street value. The result can often be an accidental overdose, and death – or lifelong disability.
Since heroin has become popular again, it’s been flooding into the United States at an elevated pace. States where drug use has been historically high – such as Vermont – and counties and towns along known drug routes are now seeing an influx of heroin use, as well.
Many first-time opioid addicts today are no longer getting hooked by prescription drug abuse, but heroin itself. Whether this is because of the increased demand for the drug following prescription drug regulations or some other reason hasn’t been conclusively studied – but the fact is that this is an even bigger danger than opioid medication, which has some assurance of safety if prescribed and supplied by a real doctor.
There is no easy factor to blame, or reason to pin. It’s a complicated mess of things, ranging from the slow death of industrial America and our recent financial crisis and depression, new wars with returning veterans struggling with the trauma and physical pain of combat, to the rising cost of living and stagnating wages, and the growing gap between rich and poor.
Dealing with Our Opioid Crisis
As individuals, we can’t fix our country overnight. But we can help each other stay alive, and live a better life: A life without prescription drug abuse. Whether it means showing compassion to a neighbor, helping your spouse stay sober, or signing into a sober living community yourself, there’s always something you can do.