Opioid painkillers have been a tool to combat chronic pain since 3400 B.C., since the Sumerians first began cultivating the poppy plant. While we’ve progressed far beyond the use of the simple poppy plant, newer opioids have proven to be more addictive and more dangerous than their predecessors. The history of the opioid epidemic that is plaguing our country is a varied one, but it’s not particularly long — it was only dubbed a crisis in the last 10 years. Where did the opioid epidemic start, and what can we do to combat it?
In the Beginning
Opioid use may have started with the poppy, but it was a common ingredient in over-the-counter medication in the 1800s and early 1900s. Morphine was isolated from its source, the poppy, in 1806 by a German chemist. Its name comes from Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. After its discovery, it was used to treat everything from pain to “women’s ailments” and everything in between.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s — when the U.S. Congress first passed the Opium Exclusion Act in 1909 and then passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax in 1914 — that the drug was regulated. The tax essentially acted as a prohibition on the drug. Two years later, the first version of Oxycodone was synthesized. The research was sound — the German scientists were trying to create a painkiller that was as effective as morphine or heroine without the addictive qualities.
The rest, as they say, is history. Oxycodone was approved by the FDA in 1950. The Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, was founded in 1973, and the war on opioid drugs had officially begun.
The 1990s and 2000s marked the introduction of new opioids — extended-release versions of morphine, fentanyl,Oxycodone and hydromorphone. By the end of the 90s, around two percent of the population was abusing prescription opioid painkillers.
2010 marked the beginning of the opioid epidemic in the United States.
The Opioid Crisis
Right now, drug overdose is officially the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2015, that consisted of 52,000 people. In 2016, that number climbed to 62,000, a 19% increase. More than half of these deaths involve a prescription opioid — medication obtained from a licensed medical professional. The overall death rate is 10.4 people per 100,000, and those numbers are growing by the year.
These numbers aren’t surprising, considering nearly 80% of the opioids produced in the world are prescribed and consumed in the United States. It’s not illegal opioids that are the problem — twice as many people die from painkiller prescriptions than from cocaine overdoses. You might think heroin is more dangerous, and while it is a seriously dangerous drug, painkiller overdoses kill five times as many people as heroin every single year.
The dramatic cuts to Medicaid proposed in each of the new Republican health care bills, being colloquially called Trumpcare, could cause an enormous rise in the overdose death rate. This is due to the fact that nearly 30% of the addicts in the nation are being treated with services provided by Medicaid — services they would lose if the health care bill passes. This doesn’t even mention the individuals dealing with alcohol addiction who would lose their services.
Individual states and towns have already started reacting to these potential cuts by proposing rules that would simply let overdose victims die rather than spending the money to treat them with the overdose countering drug Narcan. The mayor of Middletown, Ohio has proposed such a change — a three-strike rule. The third time an individual calls EMS with an overdose, they won’t be treated with Narcan. It’s essentially a death sentence.
Many of these individuals who repeatedly overdose have no access to the care they need to help them recover from their addiction.
Empathy and Combating the Crisis
What can we do to help combat the opioid crisis? The first step includes a little bit of human empathy — treating people suffering with addiction as human beings with a disease. Other countries are light years ahead of the United States when it comes to the treatment of addiction. In one fairly extreme example of this, Portugal has decriminalized all drugs — and has actually seen a dramatic drop in the use of illegal drugs and their related addictions. Drug-related deaths in Portugal are the second lowest in the EU.
Here at home, programs for reducing opioid use after medications are no longer needed could also help reduce overdose-related deaths. These medications are notoriously addictive, but by providing services to help individuals wean off their medication, medical professionals could reduce the number of addictions and the number of overdoses.
There have also been studies that suggest the use of medical marijuana for people recovering from substance abuse. The science is still incomplete, but early studies suggest that cannabis can help reduce pain and withdrawal symptoms. New Mexico has even introduced a bill to provide medical cannabis to opioid addicts to assist in their recovery.
The opioid crisis isn’t slowing down, but by providing services for individuals who are suffering from addiction and showing just a little bit of human empathy, we can take the first steps toward ending this crisis and creating a climate of recovery for these individuals.
The author is political commentator and blogger. She runs her own blog onlyslightlybiased.com