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Between illicit varieties like heroin and prescription drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and more, opioids have become the most dominant and deadly substance use threat in the country, and the third-largest overall substance use-related killer behind cigarettes and alcohol. It’s important to remember, however, that the direct effects of excessive opioid use kill much quicker than those of alcohol and tobacco. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that opioids were responsible for 49,068 of the over 72,000 overall drug overdose deaths that occurred in 2017, an increase of over 6,800 from the previous year. Opioid-related deaths have been consistently trending upward since 2002, with increases getting larger and larger nearly every year.
The opioid crisis has taken on a social and political life of its own. Stakeholders from various areas of the conversation have different, and often conflicting, ideas about how to stem the tide of addiction and subsequent overdose. There are a variety of factors driving the current opioid addiction crisis. One of the largest contributors to the problem is rampant over-prescription from members of the medical community. A few decades ago, the medical community received directives from governing authorities to do everything they can to mitigate pain when treating patients. This led to generations of prescription drug makers essentially partnering with physicians to prescribe opioid painkillers, even in cases in which they weren’t exactly necessary. Despite attempts at regulatory reform and increased accessibility to treatment, deaths continue to increase at a significantly larger rate.
While heroin and opioids have been primary mainstays of the opioid addiction crisis, the relatively recent advent of the synthetic opioid fentanyl has been a significant factor for the past few years. In 2016, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surpassed prescription addiction as the most common drugs involved in American overdose deaths. According to data from the National Institutes of Health, fentanyl-related deaths have increased from over 3,000 in 2010 to over 19,000 in 2016. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. It is commonly used to treat extreme post-operative pain and other high-level pain-related conditions.
The effects of illegal opiates like heroin are identical to commonly prescribed opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin. It’s common for those who began taking prescription painkillers for a legitimate medical issue to get hooked on the drug. Once these prescription pills become cost-prohibitive, addicts often resort to the cheaper and more accessible alternative of pure heroin. The average street price of an oxycodone pill is between $30-$50, while the prices of a baggie of heroin can go for as little as $5. This unfortunate cycle of desperation happens to addicts of all ages, from young adults to middle-aged professionals to senior citizens.