America is in the middle of the worst opioid epidemic in its history. The CDC and other agencies have been studying death rates and causes to get a better sense of the scope of the issue. In the early and mid 2000’s, most of the deaths were attributed to overdoses and complications from opioid painkillers. More recent reports suggest that heroin is the cause of a great number of these deaths, and indicate that it is making a major comeback as a drug of abuse.

The roots of the opioid epidemic trace back to the turn of the century, when American pharmaceutical companies were responsible for increasing the manufacture and sale of certain opioid drugs by over 300%. These drugs included Oxycodone/OxyContin, Percocet, Hydrocodone/Vicodin, Dilaudid and Opana, among others. All of a sudden, these drugs flooded the market and became the go-to method of treating any and all pain related issues.

What resulted was the modern opiate epidemic. Drugs that are legal, and supposed to be safe and non-addictive, were suddenly responsible for more cases of addiction and overdose deaths than any other drug. Many patients that started taking these drugs under doctors orders and as prescribed quickly developed dangerous addictions. Young people began to experiment with these drugs instead of smoking pot. More and more, people also began taking them for non-pain related issues, such as anxiety and depression.

An unfortunate side effect of the rise of prescription painkillers has been a reemergence of heroin. As we have been moderately successful reducing the prevalence of painkiller abuse in the past 8 years, heroin use has shot up in its place.

A Double Epidemic

It seems that opioid abuse is a lose-lose scenario. As new regulations and grassroots campaigns developed to address the rates of prescription painkiller abuse, hundreds of thousands of painkiller addicts made the switch to heroin as the prescription drugs became harder to come by.

Heroin caused over 10,000 deaths from overdose in 2014, over double the deaths caused by cocaine. Painkillers caused roughly another 10,000, with Oxycodone responsible for over 5,000 and other drugs killing several thousands more. The CDC and FDA studied medical and coroner reports, and concluded that over 20,000 people total died from opioid related overdoses, which is over half of deaths caused by overdoses of all drugs. It’s clear that the both prescription painkillers and heroin are causing serious issues, and both need to be addressed in order to help stop the opioid epidemic.

Finding Solutions

Solving an opioid epidemic caused by both legal prescription drugs and an illegal street drug is no easy task. The problem has been growing steadily in scale over the recent years. In 2010, there were less than 20,000 opioid related deaths. In 2016, that number spiked to over 40,000. While all opioid related deaths doubled in those six years, the deaths caused by heroin tripled.

It may take many years before the nationwide efforts to address the opioid epidemic makes any real impact. It is such a complicated, multifaceted issue that there really is no simple solution. The most impact that can be made will come from an expansion of rehabilitation programs, and from effective education and prevention campaigns.

Finding a solution also requires us to look back at how the problem began. America began to put its faith and trust into pharmaceutical drugs as the solution to all medical issues. We began to seek out a quick fix rather than a true medical solution. The same thing happened with the rise of psychiatric medications in the 1990’s, and we are still suffering the results. We need to learn from these mistakes and change the collective mindset of how pain and other medical issues are treated in a larger sense. Pills may be effective at masking the effects, but they do not solve the problem, and typically cause more problems than they solve. We should first seek out holistic and alternative treatments, nutrition and supplements, non-addictive over the counter medications, and medical treatments that do not require dangerous and addictive drugs.