Today, America’s borders have been successfully and aggressively compromised by an insidious and relentless foe. And, the more we try as a nation to defeat this rapidly-advancing enemy, the worse the situation seems to become. Your see, our nation has been effectively invaded by opioids, with every area of our country impacted by their use, and a body count that just keeps on rising. In the process, opioid addiction is systematically culling the ranks of an entire generation’s youth, and with no end in sight.
In 2016, 62,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses with at least 35,000 of those related to opioids. Just as recently as 1999, only 4,000 Americans annually were dying from drug-related overdoses. Stop for a moment and let that sink in. Nearly 100 of our citizens per day are losing their lives due to opioid overdoses and, according to government studies, that figure may actually be underreported because of the way our hospitals non-specifically record drug-overdose deaths when they occur.
To put these tragic figures in perspective, we now have more Americans dying each year from drug overdoses, primarily due to opioids, than from vehicle accidents and gun-related violence combined! Now let’s take a closer look at some reasons why the opioid epidemic, and our country’s “war” against it, just keeps on getting progressively more futile.
What are Opioids and Why are they Potentially Dangerous?
The term “opioid” describes a class of narcotic painkilling substances, naturally-occurring (called “opiates”) or synthetically-derived, that includes opium, heroin, oxycodone, codeine, fentanyl, morphine and hydrocodone. Opioids were first introduced to the United States in the 19th Century, and regulated by our government beginning in the early 1900’s. During the late 1990’s, pharmaceutical companies and medical doctors successfully lobbied the FDA for less-restrictive prescribing regulations for opioid pills, like Vicodin and Oxycontin, because they were effective in reducing pain for patients.
However, along with the proliferation of opioid pill prescriptions came abuse, illegal distribution, addiction, and overdose deaths. Today, one-in-five patients with a pain indication are written a prescription for an opioid by their doctor. Opioids act upon the user’s body in several ways, one of which is by sedating brain areas that regulate normal breathing. As a result, when large amounts of opioids enter a person’s system, natural respiratory functions are altered, and sometimes respiratory failure, and death, result.
The more potent the opioid, the greater its effect on one’s body, including the narcotic “high” they experience. For example, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50X more powerful than heroin, while inducing an effect 100X greater than morphine. Today, many users are recklessly shooting up or smoking cocktails of heroin laced with fentanyl or carfentanil, resulting in alarmingly higher rates of opioid overdose fatalities.
Opioid abuse targets all socioeconomic population groups in the U.S., but statistically has a higher prevalence in poorer counties and states impacted by economic downturns, and where the people just seem depressed due to their circumstances. A prime illustration is in West Virginia, where the coal mining industry has experienced a significant amount of lost jobs within the past 5 to 10 years. Poor inner city youth, like in Chicago, also seem to be more susceptible to opioid use, abuse and, as a consequence, die from overdoses in disproportionate numbers.
During the past 5 years or so of America’s War on Opioids, stricter physician prescribing and drug distribution laws have been enacted, both at the state and Federal Government levels. But are those actually exacerbating the problem, while giving additional ammunition to the opioid invaders? Let’s investigate that topic now.
Government Intervention is Inversely Related to Opioid Deaths
Typically in any conflict, such as our current War on Opioids, when the “good guys” ratchet up their resources, combined with developing an effective strategy against their enemy, they come out on top. In an effort to defeat our opioid adversary, however, America’s methods and money seem to be actually emboldening our deadly opponent, as heroin use has now skyrocketed.
During the past 5 years the U.S. Justice Department, along with assets from the FBI and DEA, have been cracking down on inappropriate opioid pill prescribing and distribution activities by some doctors and pharmacists. Many opioid distribution rings have been taken down in the process, but the use of opioids such as heroin, along with opioid overdose deaths, has continued to rise.
At the state and local level, prescription opioid-focused task forces have been established. One example is in Florida, where a decade ago opioid addicts from West Virginia, Vermont and other states would fly down to visit roadside pain clinics in the Sunshine State, fill prescriptions for large amounts of legal opioid pills, and sneak them back home. About five years ago, new Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi spearheaded ground-breaking pain clinic laws which subsequently reduced the sale of prescription pain pills, especially to non-state residents. Today however, Florida is now awash in an epidemic of heroin use. Addicts merely swapped one form of opioid for another. And unfortunately, this now has become a nationwide trend.
In August of 2017, President Trump announced a renewed War on Opioids, this one under the direction of his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. The president promised the American people more money and law-enforcement resources to support these opioid-targeting efforts. But is that really the answer? Recent statistics, including the Florida example cited above, would indicate otherwise.
The current trend for opioid abusers, including addicts, is to switch from prescription pain medications like hydrocodone and oxycodone to the now more-readily available and cheaper forms of heroin. Those, as was mentioned above, are now being “beefed up” with dangerously potent opioid additives like fentanyl, along with carfentanil. As a result, users are getting hooked more quickly, and ultimately they are dying on our streets in staggering numbers. But what other alternatives exist to stem the tide against this deadly opioid enemy? Let’s take a look at some methods being deployed right now in America that seem to be working.
Winning the War on Opioids Begins in Our Neighborhoods
Achieving victory in any war is usually accomplished on the front lines, and America’s ongoing conflict against opioids is no exception. Having said that, there are several programs being implemented today in communities all over our nation that are tailored to more successfully confront the opioid overdose epidemic. This counterattack against opioids is being waged one street at a time. For example, first responders including paramedics and police officers are now being armed with naloxone, a newer drug that counteracts opioid overdose symptoms. By administering naloxone in the field, the overdose victim has a much better chance of survival.
Moving on, needle sharing is a common practice by heroin users, and this ill-advised concept exposes their bodies to an increased susceptibility to IV transmitted diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV, both of which can be fatal. To counteract this practice, cities like Seattle and New York have already implemented needle “exchanges” for IV opioid users, where clean needles are distributed and shooting up can be conducted with no threat of legal prosecution.
Juxtaposed with this seemingly-unheard of program is the fact that these heroin “safe houses” are being staffed by trained medical professionals who closely monitor the heroin forms being injected, with a focus on patient safety. The ultimate goal is preventing overdoses from too much or highly potent varieties of the drug. And, at these government-run, heroin use facilities, opioid addiction counseling and treatment options will be discussed with the “patients” during their stays.
Other resources available against the War on Opioids include professionally-staffed inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment facilities, including detox centers. In these carefully-monitored settings, opioid addicts are encouraged day-by-day to get off their drug(s) of choice, including heroin. Educating the patients and their loved ones on the potential hazards of opioids, along with proven methods to overcome their addiction issues, are covered. Other addiction recovery resources include 12-Step meetings, halfway houses, and various individual and group counseling programs.
These community-based, grass roots “weapons” in the War on Opioids may be our best hope, as opposed to Federal Government intervention, as we strive to stem the tide of this seemingly endless opioid onslaught. In the end, America’s future may very well depend upon how well these neighborhood level programs pan out, as the opioid epidemic’s course is hopefully reversed.