America is in the grip of an opioid addiction epidemic, with misuse of prescription medication at the root of the problem. While there have always been issues with opioid use, specifically in the form of heroin, medications like OxyContin, Fentanyl, and Vicodin now form the core of the crisis. Compounding the issue, many Americans don’t realize they may have these dangerous medications in their own medicine cabinet.
Emergence: Where Did the Crisis Come From?
When many of these opioid painkillers came to market, it was believed that they were a good option for patients coping with chronic pain conditions. OxyContin has even been engineered specifically to avoid the potential for addiction, with the pills designed to make injection or snorting the crushed pills more difficult.
Unfortunately, doctors were incorrect about the safety of such medications for chronic pain sufferers, as many developed addictions to pills they were originally prescribed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends against prescribing these medications for chronic pain sufferers.
The reformulation of OxyContin was also insufficient in preventing abuse, particularly since there are numerous other opioids available, many more powerful and more addictive than Oxy, as the drug is commonly known.
The Shape of the Crisis
Opioid prescriptions have skyrocketed in the past few years, with particular increases seen since 1999. Between 1999 and 2008, opioid prescriptions increased threefold, setting the stage for the current epidemic. With so many individuals prescribed the medication for chronic or acute conditions, it’s been easy for addicts to access the medication, and this is particularly true for underage abusers who may not have other drug dealing contacts.
A survey of those possessing such prescription drugs showed that while most prescriptions are obtained from a single doctor, those who use the drug illegally primarily acquire the drug free from a friend or relative (54.2% of users) or purchase them from one of those sources (16.6%).
While it’s technically illegal to give medications to someone without a prescription, many people assume that if they’re getting the drugs from a relative or friend that there are no dangers to the exchange. However, if a user is pulled over on a traffic charge, and the officer discovers drugs that were not prescribed, they could be charged with possession of a controlled substance and potentially with forging a prescription.
For first time offenders, the legal team at the Monder Law Group notes that those charged with possession, forgery, or being under the influence of a controlled substance, can potentially qualify for a drug diversion program and avoid legal charges.
However, prior crimes, including those involving other illegal drugs, can disqualify individuals from such a program. Since 6% of drug crimes are related to heroin use and heroin use is often a gateway to supposedly safer prescription drug abuse, diversion is not an option for many users.
Overdoses, Naloxone, and Epidemic Management
The face of the drug war is changing as prescription drug abuse is more common among white, middle class individuals – but there remain major barriers to positive interventions. Naloxone, for example, is an opioid blocker than can be used to counteract an overdose and has been used in rehab programs for decades. In some areas, naloxone is available without a prescription so that addicts and those close to them can be prepared for an emergency. In other cases the drug is carried by EMTs or is available to users via prescription only.
The prescription drug abuse epidemic currently shows no signs of slowing and use of stronger prescription drugs alongside or cut into heroin have increased overdose death rates. In order to combat this situation, entire communities need to take steps to properly dispose of excess drugs and learn about the life saving medications and interventions available in their areas.