Name: Andy Hernandez
From: Miami, Florida
You’ve no doubt heard the term opioid epidemic get thrown around in the news. The opioid epidemic, also known as the opioid crisis. has become a hot button issue in the media. However, many may not know what the crisis actually is.
The opioid epidemic specifically refers to the growing number of deaths and hospitalizations from opioids, including prescriptions, illicit drugs, and analogues. In recent years, death rates from these drugs have ramped up to over 40,000 a year, or 115 a day, across the US. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, largely due to the opioid epidemic. The opioid epidemic first gained notoriety around 2010, but the factors behind it had begun several years earlier.
Opioids are a classification of drug that is derived from, or a synthetic version of, opium. Morphine, the most abundant natural opioid found in opium, was used for years as a pain reliever. As medicine advanced, we found ways to replicate the effects of morphine to make it stronger or weaker depending on need. Some opioids, like methadone, were developed due to a scarcity of morphine, while others, like heroin, were made in an attempt to make less addictive drugs but would later be made illegal to produce. Today, opioids are almost synonymous with pain relief.
Many trace the issue back to the late 90s. As pharmaceutical companies were looking for new painkillers, they began to push synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids to doctors. The companies would say that the drugs were either less- or non-addictive in comparison to morphine and had no dangerous side effects. Naturally, doctors began pushing these drugs as they saw no repercussions to patients taking them. This growth in the prescription opioid business directly pushed the distribution of opioids to levels that remain to this day, contributing to the epidemic we are now dealing with.
Many of those who become addicted to opioids do so after initially receiving a prescription. The highly addictive nature of these pain relievers makes it easy for the human brain to crave more. It is only after their prescription ends that many users realize they’ve become dependent on the effects of opioids to function “normally.” At that point, they are either forced to get clean and endure the pain that comes with the withdrawal symptoms of opioids or look for another means of getting their high. This is often the time where people will turn to illicit drugs or other analogues. Because prescription opioids are so expensive, this is when many users turn to heroin. It is often cheaper, more potent, and easier to locate than what they were taking before. In fact, about 80% of people using heroin started with a prescription to another opioid. After using heroin, however, 23% of individuals develop opioid addiction.
The number of people dying of accidental overdose of opioids eclipses every other drug combined, which is why the term opioid epidemic was coined. In 2015, the US saw 52,404 deaths from drug overdose. More than 20,000 of those were from prescription pain relievers, and close to 13,000 were from heroin. That means 63% of drug deaths were tied to opioids. That number of opioid-related deaths grew by nearly 10,000 the following year.
Perhaps the most stifling part of this is how many deaths come from prescriptions. These aren’t people who are using heroin or some other illegal drug. These are people who are using medication they got from a doctor.
In short, the opioid epidemic affects people in all demographics and from all walks of life, including teens, seniors, veterans, and the LGBTQ community. Even those who do not use or abuse opioids can feel the effects if opioid abuse is common in their area or if their loved ones have addiction issues. The economic burden, and the emotional burden put on families, has been dragging many down.