What do the numbers 2.7 million, 59 thousand, and 91 have in common? They represent harrowing statistics surrounding an opioid crisis that has crippled the nation over the past decade:
- 2.7 million Americans were either dependant or addicted to opioids in 2015
- 59,000 died of an opioid overdose in 2016.
- 91 people will die from an opioid overdose today.
The United States alone consumes 80% of the world’s opioid supply, and to devastating degrees. However, when it comes to assigning blame for an epidemic that has taken so many lives, it’s difficult to point fingers at just one entity. It took a combination of factors to create the perfect storm that ignited drug addiction from coast to coast, and it will take a combination of efforts to resolve it as well.
Picture the development of the crisis like a weather radar map, showcasing a hurricane barreling towards America’s East Coast. These storms rely on three distinct factors to develop. Combine warm sea temperatures, light winds, and a rotation of these conditions, and you end up with a tropical cyclone that can wreak havoc on many lives.
In a similar manner, the opioid crisis was the product of this perfect storm by way of three prominent components. First, pharmaceutical companies aggressively marketed prescription opioid drugs as a means to treat pain. Then, doctors were encouraged by these pharmaceutical companies to prescribe the drugs to their patients, thus triggering a wave of over-prescribing habits. Lastly, pharmacies dispensed too much of the prescriptions when they should have been acting as a final safety net for consumers.
But despite the figurative weather map that caused the metaphorical hurricane warning flag to be raised for the last decade, opioid prescriptions are now on a decline according to the CDC. There’s a glimmer of hope for the end of an epidemic that has both directly and indirectly affected so many lives.
Current Efforts Battling the Opioid Crisis
Coupled with the news that opioid prescriptions are falling comes a wave of initiatives focused on ending America’s worst drug crisis ever. We have a long way to go before the end of the epidemic is in sight, but the following efforts are helping us get closer to it than ever before.
1. Limits to Opioid Prescription Lengths
States have begun to place limits on the duration of time that patients can take opioid prescriptions for acute pain. Seven days is the common limit set, but certain states like New Jersey have an even stricter policy of a maximum of five days for prescriptions. Research shows that continued opioid use increases after 4-5 days, and there’s no proof that the drugs help with chronic pain like they were originally intended to. Other states that are enforcing stricter prescription policies include New York, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.
2. New FDA Strategy
In recent news, [brand new] FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb called attention to the opioid epidemic by referring to it as a “public health tragedy of enormous proportions.” He also outlined a new strategy to combat the ravaging effects of opioid use. For one, Gottlieb plans to update the Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy to make sure providers are properly prescribing patients under the right conditions.
Coupled with this effort is the intent to improve the nomenclature, or language, of prescription drugs to make it clear that there is a very real risk of abuse and addiction. Lastly, the commissioner plans to reevaluate the safety of current opioid drugs on the market. The recent removal of Opana because of the drug’s risk of abuse is an indication that Gottlieb’s strategy should be taken seriously.
3. Research & Development of Alternative Painkillers
Although there’s controversy surrounding the use of marijuana for medicinal reasons, there’s one statistic from the drug’s use that can’t be denied. There are no overdoses on record attributed to marijuana. With this knowledge in mind, research and development is underway to create marijuana-based painkillers as an alternative to opioids. States that have medical marijuana programs currently in place have reported less opioid-related deaths, further encouraging the research of the drug as an opioid replacement.
The downside to these R&D measures is that marijuana is considered a Schedule 1 substance, a dangerous drug that has no medicinal value. It could take upwards of a decade or more to jump through hoops of extra approvals the FDA has in place to bring the drug to market. Interestingly enough, oxycodone, meth, and cocaine are all classified as “schedule II” drugs and are considered less dangerous than marijuana.
4. Creation and Continuation of Needle Exchange Programs
Like the development of marijuana-based painkillers, needle exchange programs as a means to curb the opioid crisis have been met with pushback and criticism. These 200 programs, mostly on the East and West Coasts, have been created to provide clean needles and other services in order to lower the risk of infection and additional health problems associated with intravenous drug use.
Those against the programs argue that the provision of clean needles only fuels a user’s addiction. Proponents of the programs, on the other hand, say that they are both cost-effective measures and a way of reducing harm to the user currently struggling with dependency. These programs will often include a means of educating participants on how to avoid overdose and will refer users to substance abuse and treatment centers as well.
5. Allowing Lay People to Administer Naloxone (Narcan)
To combat the astoundingly high number of overdoses that occur each year, certain states have adopted laws that will allow laypeople to administer the antidote naloxone to those overdosing from opioids. 42 states have instilled these laws that make the remedy available outside of hospitals, and over 26,000 overdose rescues have been made because of the provision of naloxone kits to community groups.
Along the same lines as the naloxone provision is 40 states’ adoption of the “Good Samaritan” law. This law gives limited legal immunity to bystanders or friends who call 911 to report an overdose. If you report an overdose in Maryland as a bystander, for example, you won’t be arrested or charged for possession of a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia. But since parole violations and open warrants are common within the drug-using community, critics argue that this legal immunity should be expanded to protect those most likely to witness overdoses.
6. Holding Pharmaceutical Companies Responsible
Drug manufacturers need to be held responsible for their part in creating the addiction problem. While not all opioid addictions can be tied back to prescription painkillers, a significant portion of abuse started by individuals who took the drugs on doctors’ orders. Those doctors were relying in large part on marketing materials and studies paid for by Big Pharma, which may have overstated the effectiveness of opioid drugs in long-term and chronic pain management.
Now, many people are making calls for drug companies to pay compensation to help treat addiction and other problems related to the use of their drugs. An increasing number of state and local governments have file opioid lawsuits against drugmakers, hoping to offset the public health costs related to opiate addiction. Individuals are also starting to file personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits related to addictions caused by prescription medications.
Hope on the Horizon
Although we have a long way to go before the opioid epidemic is eradicated, the above cross-country efforts indicate that the crisis is finally being recognized as a major national problem. Through the continuation of these initiatives, America can hope to rid itself of an epidemic that has long been waiting for a cure.
If you or someone you know is battling substance abuse or dependency, don’t hesitate to get the help you need and deserve. Consult your doctor or call your local treatment center today to discuss the measures that are available.