It’s no secret that the United States is currently undergoing an opioid epidemic. It’s said that more than two million Americans have grown dependant on or abused prescription pain pills or street drugs that have the opioid classification.
These are drugs are formulated to recreate the same pain-relieving effects attributed to opium. The term can be used when talking about legal painkillers (morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone) prescribed by doctors as well as illegal drugs like heroin or fentanyl.
Out of the 72,000 documented overdose deaths that occurred in the U.S. in 2017, a shocking 49,068 were linked to an opioid. The Department of Health and Human Services believe that more than 130 people died each day from opioids in 2016 and 2017.
This is a tricky crisis, as some of these incredibly habit-forming narcotics are being prescribed by doctors legally, some of which then become an addiction for users. 2012 was the peak year of prescriptions, with 282 million opioids being prescribed in that year alone. By 2016 it was down to 236 million and has since dropped approximate 10.2% in 2017. While the numbers are still quite high, it’s moving in the right direction as more health research studies are linking this type of medication to high rates of addiction and gateway to street drugs.
When it comes to illegal opioids, it’s difficult to control. Opioid-related deaths, especially mortality associated with synthetic opioids, has increased in the eastern United States especially, doubling from 1999-2016.
In a study of opioid-related deaths from 1999 to 2016, “we found that, in general, opioid mortality is skyrocketing,” said Mathew Kiang, a postdoctoral research associate at Stanford’s Center for Population Health Sciences. “One thing I do want to highlight is that, despite the large differences in deaths across states, there’s no evidence to suggest that there are differences in use,” Kiang said. “What we think is happening is that the heroin just continues to get more and more potent in the eastern United States, whereas heroin [in] the western United States has traditionally been this brown tar heroin. It’s much harder to lace with fentanyl or other synthetic opioids.”
While the government has made strides to criminalize these drugs and transporters, there needs to be more outpatient care, and accessible rehab treatments. “We need to make treatment at least as accessible, available and affordable as heroin,” Kiang said. “It shouldn’t be harder to get help than it is to get heroin.”
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