Growing up in the Western world, children are taught to avoid drug usage due to the harmful effects of them and the chance of addiction. The drugs being referred to are illegal drugs, but as children get older they learn that not all drugs are bad — in fact some of them help people. But those drugs often go by a different name: medicine.
As time has gone on, we have learned that the line between “good” drugs and “bad” drugs is not as simple as medicinal and harmful. We’re learning that not all medicines are what they are supposed to be. Because, at the end of the day, they’re drugs — chemicals used for different purposes and that can affect each person differently.
There is no better example of negative consequences due to a drug misunderstanding than what we now know as the opioid crisis. Some predict that half a million people will die from opioid overdoses in the next decade alone. How did this happen to us, a nation wary of the dangers of substance abuse and addiction? Well first, let’s understand what drugs have contributed to this crisis.
The Opioid Ambush
You may recall the episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine fails a drug test because she is eating a poppy seed muffin. This is because poppy plants are used to make opiates, the most infamous of which is heroin. Modern drug tests can now tell the difference (thankfully for those of us who love poppy seed muffins!). However, heroin isn’t the only addictive opiate you may have heard of. Morphine and codeine are painkillers prescribed by doctors as well, and both are highly addictive and include opium.
Opioids are similar to opiates, but they are partly synthetic — that is, they’re not “natural” in the sense that they are completely derived from poppy plants because they include other sorts of human meddling and chemical manipulation. Opioids are common painkillers you may know from drugs like OxyContin, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. Currently, the word “opioid” is being used to define the both opioids and opiates that contribute to this addictive and killing public health crisis as they both work similarly.
Chances are you have heard of some of the drugs listed above, and maybe you’ve used some from time to time at the recommendation of a doctor. The problem with focusing all of our efforts toward illegal street opioids is that we ignore the issues brought to us through modern medicine’s use of the stuff. The Guardian, using statistics from CDC, recently reported:
A majority of the deaths [from drug abuse in 2017] – nearly 49,000 – was caused by opioids, according to the new data. And the biggest driver was the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl, which killed more than 29,000 people, followed by heroin and other drugs.
The problem does not end with illegal drugs. In fact, it is very much entwined in our medical cultures.
Big Pharma, Black Markets, and Financial Sacrifices
The sad fact is that opioids are convenient and pharmaceutical companies make a financial killing off of them (no pun intended). Tens of millions of opioids are given to people with mental health issues and they tend to get them faster than those who are mentally healthier. It’s not just a method of doing things but an industry.
Now, people abusing their prescriptions is not a new problem. Duquesne University recently released an infographic that reported 18.9 million people misusing their prescriptions in 2015, and as far back as 1989 there were movies like “Drugstore Cowboy” about dope fiends robbing pharmacies. We have talked about drug addiction and opioid addiction for years, but only now (at the peak of medicine addiction’s death toll) are we admitting we need to do something about it.
This begs the question of how deep is Big Pharma in our pockets? Well, while a lot of money is made off of drugs like fentanyl officially, addicts are also going to black market means in order to get it. Last year, in 2018, New York Senator Charles E. Schumer reported over 81 pounds of fentanyl being obtained by authorities through national and international mail the previous year. Black Markets can make more turning opioids around, but Big Pharma still makes a lot. Kids get it from doctors, and then go elsewhere to get it, sometimes substituting it for heroin, which is weaker than drugs like fentanyl (which probably leads to more overdosing).
In addition, it was recently found by the New York State Health Foundation that opioid manufacturers have been known to pay physicians, who are likely to then prescribe it to patients. For physicians and pharmaceutical companies to stop prescribing opioids in the same fashion they have been, they would be sacrificing a huge amount of dough.
Refuge in Unexpected Places
There are ways to combat the opioid crisis, and not all of them are what you might expect. Medical cannabis proponents argue that legalizing marijuana as a painkiller could be a valid opponent to the opioid epidemic, and they have some compelling arguments. While the effects of analgesic effects of marijuana may not always match that of opioids, the alternative could reduce opioid usage in the first place if it was a valid and legal option. Additionally, marijuana does not have the addictive effects that are found in opioids. Other potential refuges include things like light exercise and meditation, depending on the severity of the pain.
Now, it’s not that nobody is fighting. Opioid addiction is being tackled on several different fronts by the American government and our society, but necessary accountability for healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies is somewhat scarce, and much more will need to be done to truly make a strong impact. Medical health professionals have to make the individual choice to fight opioid addiction, because the system they work in is not doing enough. Educating themselves and patients about the dangers of opioid usage, staying aware of other options, and using discretion while prescribing medicine is of the utmost importance.
Ultimately, however, we need more people in power saying enough is enough. We need a majority of medical professionals and government officials speaking out. The payments of opioid companies to physicians needs to be halted. And there has to be unity behind actions taken toward this. Throughout history, when people bind together revolutionary things happen. The opioid crisis needs something like that more than ever.
What’s been your experience with opioid addiction? How do you think the United States and Western world should handle it? Let us know in the comments below!