Overcoming the Opioid Epidemic – A National Public Health Emergency

Since the turn of the millennium, drug overdose deaths in the United States have tripled. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdose deaths in 2016 rose to as many as an estimated 65,000, up from 52,404 in 2015, which was a record itself. More Americans died in 2016 from drug overdoses than died in both of the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

A National Emergency of Public Health

Although President Trump stated that he was officially declaring it a National Emergency in August, by October, his administration had opted to call it a “national public health emergency” instead. As opioid overdoses claim the lives of 100 Americans every day, and make the news when they kill celebrities like Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Prince, it has become the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, killing more Americans than automobile accidents, gun deaths, and HIV/AIDS.

A Prescription for Crisis

Opioids were developed as an anesthetic and medical pain reliever in 1959, but in the Nineties, the pharmaceutical industry decided to expand their market, convincing doctors and their patients that opioids were not addictive and could be used for everyday use. Initially adminstered by syringe, it was brought to the market in pill form, as a daily-wear patch, and then released in lollipops. Commonly used to ease pain after surgery and for palliative care, pharmaceutical companies assured doctors of their products’ safety for chronic pain. A few decades later, the United States, consisting of 5% of the world’s population, consumes 80% of the world’s opioid supply, including 99% of the world’s hydrocodone.

A number of states, cities, counties, and other municipalities have already filed lawsuits against a number of pharmaceutical companies and their distributors, and the attorneys general of 41 different states have joined forces to investigate opioid manufacturers Allergan, Endo International, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma, and Teva Pharmaceuticals. The allegation is that these companies used fraudulent marketing practices and distributed misleading information about the risks and benefits of their products, like oxycodone and hydrocodone, resulting in 38% of the U.S. population being prescribed an opioid in 2015, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The Case for Cannabis, Nature’s Solution

States that have legalized medical marijuna have 25-33% fewer opioid overdose deaths, according to a number of different reports. Although cannabis was used as medicine for millennia in different cultures, it was banned in America in the early twentieth century. Fortunately, with 29 states having now legalized its use, it making a comeback, and some believe is can help alleviate some of the suffering from the opioid epidemic.

Yet although it is currently being used as treatment for glaucoma, seizure disorders, anxiety, Alheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, nausea, cancer treatments, and more, and while there are no recorded instances of anyone every overdosing on marijuana, under the Controlled Substances Act initiated by Richard Nixon before he was shamefully extricated from office, at the federal level, marijuana is still considered to be a deadly, addictive, non-medical narcotic under Schedule 1. Yet although more than half of adult Americans claim to have at least tried marijuana, and although none of them have died, Americans don’t have the freedom access any more education about this plant without going through several beurocratic layers of red tape.

Do you think it’s time that marijuana was scheduled appropriately?

The Bonds of Addiction

By 2010, roughly 23.5 million Americans, one in ten over the age of twelve, were addicted to alcohol or drugs. Only about 11% of them receive treatment. At the same time, half of the U.S. prison population, 2.2 million Americans are in prison or jail for drug crimes. If ten percent of our population are addicts, and ten percent of the addicts are in prison, perhaps it’s time that we revisited the true causes of addiction and treat it as the public health emergency that it is, instead of merely seeing it as a criminal behavior.

Criminality in the Land of the Free

Should drug use continue to be treated as a crime?

With current estimates at $51 billion per year, it is estimated that over the last four decades, American taxpayers have spent $1 trillion on the drug war. Considering that the U.S. leads the world with the most opioid addicts while housing 25% of the world’s prison population, perhaps it is time to reconsider our strategy. Since that $51 billion a year has done nothing to curb addiction in America, perhaps that money would be better spent on treatment.

Would America be wise to decriminalize drug use and focus on treatment?

The Problem in Portugal

In the 1990s, 1% of Portugal’s population was hooked on heroin. However, instead of using the same methods that America was using, in 2001, they decided to decriminalize all drugs and redirect their efforts toward treatment. While drug trafficking is still illegal and enforced, people in possession of drugs are not criminally prosecuted, but offered treatment, employment, and housing opportunities. Their addiction rate has been halfed and they now only have about 30 overdose deaths a year, compared to America’s 65,000.

Could America follow Portugal’s example as a way to deal with our drug epidemic?

Treatment for Public Health

If the Trump administration wants to call America’s opioid epidemic a “national public health emergency,” we need to start by ending our war on drug users and treating them as unhealthy people instead of criminals. Incarcerating people for being addicts has not proven to be effective in reducing drug use in America or addictions. Perhaps it is time we start investing in people again.

What do you think America should do about the opioid epidemic?

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