By Steven Barto
I am no stranger to addiction. I started drinking and getting high the summer after high school graduation. It was 1977 and pot and southern rock went hand-in-hand. I found my answer to all the anger, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and feelings of not belonging. Of course, I had no idea where it would lead, or that it would take me nearly four decades to get clean. I’ve said it before: No one wakes up one day and says, “I think I want to be a full-blown alcoholic or drug addict when I grow up. I want to loose all self-respect, most of my teeth, two wives, four jobs, three cars, and my sense of ambition. I’d love to be estranged from family and friends. It’ll be great. Just me and my drugs!” Anyone whose not an addict or alcoholic and thinks it is a moral or deliberate choice doesn’t understand addiction.
Map shows areas of opiate use, with the most prevalence noted in dark pink.
The “perfect storm” that got us to a nationwide opiate epidemic is intertwined with influences you’d never expect. Heroin used to be limited to the beatniks, poets, jazz musicians, wild-and-crazy rock stars of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. But things were about to break loose. Congressmen Robert Steele (R-CT) and Morgan Murphy (D-IL) released an explosive report in 1971 covering the growing heroin epidemic among U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. America saw thousands of military personnel coming home from Southeast Asia addicted to heroin. As a result, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” In fact, Nixon called drug abuse “public enemy number one.” Initially, the lion’s share of monies thrown at the drug problem went for treatment, which was a good thing. Unfortunately, this did not remain so in subsequent years. Politicians saw the opportunity to “take back the streets” of America from hippies, druggies, liberals, love children, people of color, and other “subversives” who did not seem to be conforming to the American lifestyle. Emphasis changed to criminalizing addicts and locking them up.
Admittedly, cocaine and crack became a serious concern before America fell face-first into the current opiate epidemic. Interestingly, one of the major factors contributing to increased cocaine trafficking was the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed into law under President Bill Clinton. Goods began to flow into the United States from Mexico at such an increase that border patrol was unable to adequately assure drugs were not coming over the border. There simply were not enough agents to keep up with inspection and enforcement. Prior to the climate of unrestrained trade, President Nixon had ordered that every vehicle returning from Mexico must be searched for drugs. Long lines ensued, and there was no appreciable reduction in drug trafficking.
In 1995, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved OxyContin for prescription use. Its active ingredient, oxycodone, was believed since the 1960s to be highly addictive. Purdue Pharma, the inventor of OxyContin, claimed their formula of delayed-release oxycodone would all but eliminate the “rush” experienced by taking the drug in its original form. Purdue launched an extremely aggressive marketing progam, sending drug reps to virtually every family practitioner and pain management specialist, armed with what was eventually deemed a falsified report that less than 1% of OxyContin patients became addicted. Doctors were offered outrageous incentives to prescribe the drug. Purdue Pharma began the practice of sponsoring trade shows and symposiums, often plying physicians with lavish meals and “entertainment.” On the heels of this marketing blitz, the American Pain Society began arguing for medical providers to view pain as the “fifth vital sign.” This is precisely the basis for the How would you rate your pain on a scale of 0-10? question that is asked in every emergency department in America today. Well-intentioned doctors believed it was unconscionable to let patents suffer through severe pain. They didn’t believe Oxy would do more harm than good.
By 1996, Purdue Pharma reported $45 million in sales of OxyContin. As of 2000, the number jumped to over $1 billion. That’s a two-thousand fold increase. Misuse and abuse of opiate painkillers (OxyContin, Vicodin, Lortab, oxycodone) increased significantly beginning in 2000. In 2002, 6.2 million Americans were abusing prescription drugs, and emergency room visits resulting from the abuse of narcotic pain relievers had increased dramatically. By 2009, the total number of visits to ERs for overdose on opiates was 730,000, which was double the number of five years before. More than 50,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2016. Heroin accounted for 12,898 of those deaths that year. Synthetic opioids (such as Fentanyl) killed 5,880. Prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin claimed 17,536 lives.
Companies like Purdue Pharma have restructured the formula of opiate medications in order to make them even harder to abuse. No doubt this had a lot to do with the $635.5 million fine levied against Purdue for intentionally misleading the medical community regarding the potential to become addicted to OxyContin. Typically, addicts crush and snort the drug, or cook it down and inject it. What’s disheartening today is that most people who started out taking and then abusing OxyContin and other opiate pain medication are now using heroin because it’s cheaper – $5 to $7 dollars for enough to be high most of the day versus $10 to $80 for one Oxy, depending on its strength. Heroin is readily accessible virtually everywhere you go, and it is easily converted to a form that can be smoked or injected.
Front page news in my hometown paper, The Sunday Item, indicates that drug overdoses in Pennsylvania killed nearly 11,000 people in the last three years, fueled largely by heroin and prescription painkillers. The number of deaths has steadily increased year after year. As fatal overdoses have increased, so has public awareness, access to addiction treatment, and legislative initiatives against an epidemic the U.S. Department of Justice describes as the leading cause of death of Americans under the age of 50. It is important to note that this is a disease that affects everybody. Let’s stop playing the New Jim Crow game and stigmatizing, criminalizing, and institutionalizing drug addicts based upon skin color. Heroin and opiate drug addiction is rampant today in all socioeconomic classes, to be sure, but surprisingly it is most prevalent in white males age 18 to 25.
The Sunday Item interviewed a man named Steven C., 27 years old, who is a recovering heroin addict attempting sobriety after fifteen years of opioid abuse. When he heard the news of an overdose outbreak in the Williamsport (Pennsylvania) area that sent 51 patients to the hospital in 48 hours, with three patients now dead, Steven couldn’t help but realize, “That could have been me.” Steven was brought back to consciousness from a heroin overdose on August 9th of last year. EMTs adminstered naloxone, which is used in the field to reverse the effects of an overdose, but it didn’t work. His heart had stopped. Thankfully, CPR eventually restarted his heart.
The Official Response
Federal and state funding for the opioid and heroin problem in Pennsylvania has been increased 19% to $76 million for the current fiscal year. The funds include $5 million for grant money to provide naloxone for emergency responders, which is proven to reverse the effects of narcotic overdose in most cases, and $2.3 million to establish specialty courts for handling drug-related criminal cases. Great strides have already been taken in fighting this epidemic. Pennsylvania restricts opioid prescriptions to seven days for minors and those discharged from hospital ERs. Emergency room physicians are not allowed to see patients for follow-up visits or refills. Each instance where an opioid prescription is filled is recorded on a state-wide database in order to stop “doctor shopping” or getting refills “too early.” According to the Sunday Item article, the prescription database has been accessed by doctors 8 million times since it was launched.
An estimated 2 million Americans are addicted to painkillers, and another 591,000 are addicted to heroin. Although we’re beginning to made headway regarding opioid prescriptions, much remains to be done regarding heroin addiction. It is noteworthy that taking opioid pain medication for longer than three months makes patients up to forty times more likely to become addicted to heroin. Senator Gene Yaw (R-23) of Williamsport told reporters, “I have said many times that I don’t expect to see positive results for at least ten years. It took a long time to get into the situation we find ourselves and we can’t expect a change to happen overnight. We are addressing many issues and eventually together they will make a difference.” It is abundantly clear that there is a risk of progression from alcohol and other drugs (especially opioid painkillers) to heroin.
What can you do? Most importantly, as public service announcements state on TV in Pennsylvania, “Mind your meds.” Please don’t react to this suggestion by simply saying drug addicts should be able to be trusted, otherwise they’re just thieves. Or, that they should have better impulse control. Addiction is not about willpower, nor is it a matter of a moral deficiency. Virtually anyone who uses opiates for pain for longer than three months can become addicted. That is the very nature of the morphine molecule found in these medications. It is extremely difficult for an opiate addict to “just say no” to the screaming of their mu-opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord once the morphine molecule has latched “lock-and-key” into place. Opiates are far more potent than naturally occurring endorphins.
I really had no idea how difficult it can be to quit drinking or taking opiates once your body gets used to the chemical reaction and the euphoria. I have not had a drop of alcohol, a line of cocaine, or a joint since 2008. It was not so easy for me to give up opioid painkillers. It’s a two-edged sword. First, there’s the initial legitimate need for pain relief. Doctors recognized this in the 90s when they decided to not let their patients suffer in chronic agony. Although I was in recovery for other substances, I thought I could use pain medication safely. I’d abused it in the past, sure, but now I was “sober” and I needed help with severe back pain. I didn’t want the drug in order to “party.” The other edge of the sword is the neuropsychology of the addiction itself. These types of medications actually restructure the brain. Sometimes the effects are permanent, as when memory or IQ or motor skills are compromised. Thankfully, this is not the case for me.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a drug or alcohol problem, please consult your physician for a phone number to the nearest help line. You will also find AA and NA phone lines in the phone book or online. If you are a Christian facing addiction, consider Celebrate Recovery. Facebook has numerous groups you can join. You call also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will reply as soon as I can.
The Sunday Item. (Sunday, July 9, 2017) Sunbury, PA http://dailyitem.com
Karlman, J. (February 16, 2017). Timeline: How Prescription Drugs Became a National Crisis. Retrieved from: http://fox5sandiego.com/2017/02/16/timeline-of-how-prescription-drugs-became-national-crisis/
Moghe, S. (October 14, 2016). Opioid History: From Wonder Drug to Abuse Epidemic. CNN Online. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/12/health/opioid-addiction-history/index.html
Sandino, J. (May 13, 2015). A Timeline of the Heroin Problem in the U.S. Addictionblog.org Retrieved from: http://drug.addictionblog.org/a-timeline-of-the-heroin-problem-in-the-u-s/
Tribune News Services. (December 8, 2016). More than 50,000 Overdose Deaths. Chicagotribune.com. Retrieved from: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-us-overdose-deaths-20161208-story.html