Opioid addiction has become the most common drug addiction in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 91 Americans per day die from an opioid overdose. Drug addiction used to be thought of as a providence of the inner-cities and lower-class. Though it has always been the truth, addiction does not discriminate. The opioid epidemic has illuminated that truth because people from all walks of life (e.g. parents, honors students, business people, teachers/coaches, etc.) have fallen into the grips of opioid addiction. Communities across the country are making efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, but there is still much work that needs to be done before a difference is made.
The Cause of the Opioid Epidemic
Pain is a sensation that humans despise. Pleasure is a sensation that humans are hardwired to seek. Many people open the Pandora’s Box of opioid addiction when they are introduced to prescription painkillers. People are most commonly introduced to prescription painkillers when they are prescribed them by a doctor for a legitimate medical reason. Other common introductions to prescription painkillers include recreational use at parties and finding them at someone’s house. The problem is doctors are quick to prescribe opioid painkillers for mundane injuries and illnesses (e.g. dental procedures, headaches, sprained ankles, etc.). People who are prescribed prescription painkillers often do not dispose of them properly, so they end up leaving them in the medicine cabinet or giving them to someone that they know.
In addition to physical pain relief, opioids provide psychological pain relief because they provide feelings of euphoria and forgetfulness. Opioids are so addictive because they mimic the body’s natural endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. Repeated use causes the body to stop naturally producing endorphins, causing the user to feel sick and depressed. The user has to keep using opioids to function and feel pleasure.
Prescription painkillers are expensive. One pill may cost 50 to 80 dollars on the street. Since prescription painkillers are not illicit drugs, they do not carry the same stigma as street drugs; therefore, people are not as concerned about becoming addicted to them. Heroin offers the same high for a fraction of the price. One hit of heroin can cost as little as 10 dollars. Though heroin carries a huge stigma, prescription painkiller addicts are willing to try it because it offers the same high for a much cheaper price.
Addiction is defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Addiction is both a physiological and psychological disease. Contrary to popular belief, addiction is not a choice. Though addicts may have chosen to use drugs in the beginning, once they cross that line into addiction, they lose their choice. After repeated use, having the addictive substance in its system becomes the body’s new homeostasis. If the addicted body does not receive the substance, it reacts by going into violent, fatal withdrawal. Medical detoxification is needed for safe, comfortable withdrawal. Addictions are often fueled because the addictive substance satisfies a psychological need (e.g. escape from the pain of childhood trauma).
Why is Overdose So Common with Opioids?
Opioids are one of the easiest drugs to overdose on because they are depressants, which means they dampen the central nervous system. Opioids do not channel the direct site of pain; they relieve pain by causing changes in the brain. A moderate amount of opioids merely slow the respiratory system. When an excessive amount opioids are used, the respiratory system stops working altogether, causing a fatal overdose.
Combating the Opioid Epidemic
While addiction could be treated there is currently no cure for the disease. Instead, addiction is put into remission. The only way to treat addiction right now is detox and rehab. Detox primarily addresses the physiological component of addiction, and rehab primarily addresses the psychological component of addiction while taking a holistic approach. The cost of treatment is expensive, and insurance coverage is still sketchy. Governments are working on increasing funding to make treatment more affordable.
Drug addiction still carries a stigma that makes people afraid to talk about it and seek help. Communities and the media are working on educating the public about addiction as a disease. Education will shatter the stigma and stop the silence.
Narcan/Naloxone is a drug that temporarily counteracts overdoses by kicking the opioids off the receptor and blocking the receptor site. Medical help is still needed because narcan is only in effect for 30 to 90 minutes. It is available at drug stores and pharmacies for the general public to purchase.
• Safe Injection Sites
Safe injection sites are places where addicts can use their drugs in a sterile environment with sterile equipment. Medical personnel is on-site to treat overdoses. Safe injection sites are still in the development stages due to legality and controversy.
• Drug Court
Efforts are being made to treat drug addiction as a disease, not a crime in the eyes of the law. Drug courts prosecute drug-related offenses by offering or mandating treatment instead of sentencing to prison