You’ve probably seen the pictures – mothers and fathers unconscious in the driver’s seats of their cars from heroin overdoses, while their children cry in car seats behind them. It’s disturbing and inconceivable to see those images and to wonder how those parents can put their kids through that horrible situation. Some see it as parents choosing drugs over the well-being of their children, and it is at some level. However, it’s very likely that by the time those individuals reached that point, they had very little choice left. They were addicted, and they had become statistics in the overwhelming opioid epidemic that is sweeping through the country.
While opioid use is rampant nearly everywhere you turn, whether small rural town or big city, there are some areas of the country that are harder hit than others. States that top the list for opioid drug overdose deaths in 2016 include Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Texas, and California.
In Orange County, California, accidental opioid overdoses from prescriptions pain killers like OxyContin and fentanyl rose by 20% between 2015 and 2016. In total, opioids (including prescription and illicit drugs) caused the deaths of 211 Orange County residents last year.
The victims were from all walks of life, including men and women, all races, and ages ranging from 18 to 74 years old. There are no dividing lines when it comes to the opioid epidemic, it is an equal opportunity killer.
There were more deaths from drug overdoses in 2015 than in any other year previously. The American Society of Addiction Medicine reports that more than 60% of those deaths involved opioid drugs. In the fifteen years from 1999 to 2014, the number of deaths from prescription opioids and heroin nearly quadrupled, with a total of almost half a million fatalities. Each and every day, the lives of 90 Americans are claimed due to opioid overdose.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the trend of heroin use among young people. From 2002 until the present, past month use of heroin, past year use of heroin, and heroin addiction have increased among 18-25 year olds. The number of new heroin users within the last year is also increased. Among those new users, nearly 75% reported using prescription opioids prior to using heroin.
Overall, deaths related to heroin use and overdose more than tripled from 2010 to 2015, with 12,990 fatalities in 2015. In several states, deaths related to the opioid fentanyl are also rising.
The opioid epidemic that the country is currently experiencing cannot be blamed solely on illegal drugs like heroin. The problem began back in the 1990s with a perfectly legal one.
At that time, pain management was beginning to be treated by doctors as a serious medical condition. It is reported that about a third of adult Americans suffer from chronic pain, so it is easy to understand why this concern took hold in the medical community.
Unfortunately, several pharmaceutical companies used this concern to their advantage. They began to market – extensively and ubiquitously – pain medication like OxyContin, Percocet, and other opioids to doctors as a solution to chronic pain. This was done even though there was very little evidence to support using these opioids for long-term pain, despite the effectiveness of their use for short-term, acute pain.
Use of the opioid painkillers flourished, with prescriptions for those with chronic pain multiplying year after year. Sadly, the drugs were not only in the hands of the patients for whom they were prescribed – they were available to any teen that had access to their parents’ medicine cabinet, friends and family with whom the rugs were shared, and illegally on the streets.
Finally, officials began to take note of the rise in opioid abuse, addiction, and overdoses, and they started to crack down on painkiller prescriptions. Doctors were threatened with losing their medical licenses and even incarceration if they failed to prescribe opioids responsibly. This new scrutiny forced many doctors to stop prescribing opioids so freely, and to review patients’ medical records for indications of past drug abuse before prescribing.
Unfortunately, many patients were already addicted. When they could no longer refill prescriptions for their painkillers, they turned to cheaper, stronger opioids like heroin and fentanyl.
Though this scenario is not consistent among all opioid users, it was the case for many. In a study reported on by the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was found that many prescription painkiller patients were moving on to heroin. Additionally, an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015 found that people who become addicted to painkillers are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin.
Those statistics shouldn’t lead us to believe that regulating the prescription of opioid painkillers was a mistake. It has had some beneficial results – while opioid deaths as a whole have increased, the rise in the number of deaths due to prescription opioids has slowed. It may also have prevented a whole new generation of pain sufferers from becoming addicted.
Clearly, the best solution for current opioid addicts is to get them into treatment and hope for successful recovery. However, in a 2014 report, it was determined that 89 percent of individuals who meet the criteria for a drug abuse disorder diagnosis did not receive treatment. There are many factors that contribute to that statistic, including denial on the part of the drug abuser, financial issues, and concern about the stigma associated with drug addiction. Many people with drug abuse disorders also complained about the accessibility to treatment and long waiting periods for care.
Other solutions, or at least improvements, include:
• Improving opioid painkiller prescribing to reduce the overall exposure to opioids, prevent potential abuse, and decrease addiction.
• Expand access to treatment for those suffering from substance abuse disorders.
• Increase the access and use of naloxone, an antidote that can reverse opioid overdose.
• Work with state and local public health agencies, medical examiners, and law enforcement to improve the detection of trends regarding illegal opioid use.
• Work to reduce the stigma of addiction with education, communication, and awareness.
Some states, including New Mexico, Washington, and Massachusetts, have put some legal solutions into place to help reduce the spread of infectious diseases caused by intravenous (IV) drug use, like Hepatitis C and HIV virus. Those solutions include:
• The authorization of needle exchanges
• The exemption of syringes and needles from the legal definition of drug paraphernalia
• The decriminalization of possession of legally obtained needles and syringes
• The decriminalization of needle possession if the possession is disclosed to a law enforcement officer
• The legalization of the retail sales of syringes
Even with new laws and policies in place, without extensive education about addiction and the dangers of opioid drug abuse, the epidemic isn’t likely to be reduced any time soon.
The relapse rates for heroin and other opioids is very high, making long-term, intensive treatment necessary in most cases. Orange County is home to some of the best drug and alcohol rehab facilities in the country. If you or your loved one is struggling with heroin, or any other opiate, addiction, know that recovery is possible for those who are willing to take the first step – seeking treatment, and then making a commitment to living a life of recovery. Reach out today and find the help that you and your family needs.