This year, more people will overdose on drugs than will die in a car crash. But the drug epidemic is not a result of contraband. It is a sad story of misinformation and manipulation. The bright spot in all this however is the public response.
America’s doctors began with the best of intentions. They saw America’s debilitating pain problem and turned to opioids that were marketed as useful to treat all pain. Though there was a stark lack of evidence that opioids like OxyContin could treat chronic pain and a plethora of evidence that opioids were cripplingly addictive, Pharmaceutical companies took advantage of doctors who were searching for a solution. They marketed opioids as the safer solution to chronic pain.
What followed was an unprecedented scramble for prescriptions and a culture of treating pain with pills. The result was that enough prescriptions were written in 2012 to give one to every adult in the United States. Though only five percent of the world’s population calls the United States home, it is the home of seventy five percent of all prescription drugs.
When the crackdowns eventually began, addicted patients turned to heroin, a cheaper, but far more lethal, alternative. Deaths attributed to painkiller overdose leveled off, leading many to believe the problem had been solved. All the while, heroin overdoses quietly skyrocketed, increasing nearly four hundred percent according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The sad reality was that addicts were not abusing drugs less; they were finding another source to fuel their addiction.
The bright spot in all of however, is the response. Where once the war on drugs filled prison cells and court rooms, the response to the opioid crisis has been treated as a public health issue. Though this reversal of response quite surely has racial and socioeconomic implications-this crisis targets far more white middle class areas than previous drug epidemics-it is still a welcome sight.
Police Departments have started carrying Narcan and some police chiefs are even refusing to arrest heroin users, favoring solutions that involve treatment and rehabilitation. This response is also reflected in the federal government’s response. The Office of National Drug Control Policy, led by Michael Botticelli, a recovering alcoholic himself, has ramped up funding to combat drug abuse through treatment and prevention programs.
What needs to follow now is common sense drug education. Instead of demonizing all drugs and creating a taboo around them, there needs to be an open conversation on drug abuse. Teenagers need programs that embrace the reality that marijuana use is far less deadly than opioids. They need programs that teach them the danger of using someone else’s prescription, which happens to also be the way that fifty-five percent of all prescription drugs are obtained.
Public health campaigns need to stress that opioids cannot remedy all chronic pain. In this way will the pressure on doctors-forty four percent of whom have had to write scripts just to get a patient to leave the room- be alleviated.
Above all, the general public needs to continue to support the idea that addiction is a disease. By decriminalizing drug possession and transitioning to rehabilitative and preventive measures, which must be extended to communities of all income levels and racial makeups, the United States will begin to heal from its drug addiction problem.