A Drug Crisis Is Sweeping the Nation

Updated on April 19, 2018
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Sarah Starkey is an advertising and journalism major at Western Kentucky University.

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Opioids Are Killing Hundreds Daily

The yearly number of deaths caused by car wrecks, HIV/AIDs, and firearms is currently less than the number of drug overdoses that occur each year in America. Last year more than 63,000 lives were lost to overdoses. Around 42,000 of those overdoses were associated with opioids.

What is an opioid? Why are so many people dying from them?

Heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine are all in the class of drugs considered opioids.

The effects of opioids, while euphoric, can result in respiratory depression.

According to an article from Scientific American:

"When the drug binds to the mu-opioid receptors it can have a sedating effect, which suppresses brain activity that controls breathing rate. It also hampers signals to the diaphragm, which otherwise moves to expand or contract the lungs. Opioids additionally depress the brain’s ability to monitor and respond to carbon dioxide when it builds up to dangerous levels in the blood."

When people overdose they usually lose the ability to breathe and suffocate to death. Signs of an overdose include: purple or black fingernails and lips, slow heartbeat, slow breathing or no breathing at all, vomiting, and choking sounds.

But where are these drugs coming from?

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Where It Comes From

In an interview with William R. Brownfield, Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, he spoke to wbur about where these drugs come from.

Most opioids, apart from fentanyl and heroin, are "domestically produced and then diverted into the black market" according to Brownfield. He noted that almost all the heroin and fentanyl in the U.S. comes from outside the country. Heroin mostly coming from Mexico and fentanyl from China.

Fentanyl is a rather new drug to the U.S. and is taking lives at a much higher rate than heroin or any other opioids.

"The danger of fentanyl — a product that is perhaps 10 to 50 times as potent as morphine or heroin — the danger, of course, is that if the user thinks he's just using a heroin product, and is unaware that it has been made infinitely more potent by the introduction of fentanyl, the risk of overdose and the risk of death is much, much higher," said Brownfield.

Brownfield noted that they have opened a dialogue with China and are trying to stop the flow of these drugs to America by participating in international organization's discussions of the crisis.

"And I've gotta tell you, I do not claim that all parts of the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and China are working well, but on drugs, I give them credit, we're cooperating quite well," said Brownsfield.

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The Pharmacies?

Despite the CDC assigning specific guidelines for prescribing opioids, "the supply of prescription opioids remains high in the U.S." (CDC)

Oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone are the three prescription opioids most likely to be involved in prescription overdose deaths.

The National Academy of Medicene states “Nearly half of opioid overdose deaths are related to medications obtained legally by prescription.”

There have been many lawsuits against companies that produce opioid products since the early 2000s. The offense has claimed that there is not enough warning about the addictive nature of opioids and that "companies failed to include safety mechanisms, such as an antagonist agent or tamper-resistant formulation". There has not been much success in the these lawsuits, however, due to the fact that these companies are not held responsible for prescribers' or patients' actions that "contribute to the harm".

According to an article from The New England Journal of Medicine, the government has also gotten involved in opioid litigation.

"Governments allege that opioid companies unreasonably interfered with the public’s health by oversaturating the market with drugs and failing to implement controls against misuse and diversion, thereby creating a public nuisance."

At this point, you may be thinking "Well--what the hell!--do away with them altogether!" But that is not necessarily the answer.

Opioids do wonders in numbing the pain of serious injuries and ailing cancer patients. According to The National Center for Health Statistics, one in four Americans has suffered pain that last more than 24 hours and millions of Americans "suffer from acute pain". So we can't do away with opioids completely, but we can redesign them.

Introducing an antagonist into the production of opioids may help to take away the euphoric effect that opioids have on people by blocking opioids from attaching to opioid receptors in the brain, while still alleviating pain.

"Prescription drug monitoring programs have shown considerable promise in tracking potential abusers." These programs take precautions such as backgrounding patients for a history of drug abuse before prescribing them opioids and have a lot of success in Illinois in decreasing prescriptions of opioids.


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