Understanding What’s Being Done to Address the Opioid Crisis

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What started as a simmering problem has officially boiled over into a national catastrophe. The opioid crisis, which has already killed thousands, is easily the deadliest drug crisis in American history. It takes lives daily and affects the health and well-being of many more. But what, if anything, is being done to combat it?

The Startling State of America’s Opioid Crisis

In order to understand the current state of America’s opioid crisis, you have to rewind all the way back to the end of the 20th century. It was then, in the late 1990’s, that pharmaceutical companies made a big push in the medical community. They assured patients, healthcare providers, insurance companies, and doctors that these pain relievers would have a positive impact on the country’s health. More importantly, they promised that patients wouldn’t become addicted.

As a result of persuasive lobbying, doctors began prescribing opioid pain relievers at significantly higher rates than in the past. Predictably, this led to widespread abuse and addiction – something that’s become increasingly evident over the past 5-10 years.

Today, we’re living in the middle of one of the greatest health crises this country has ever known. According to data gathered by the National Institute of Health, here’s where things stand:

  • In 2015, an estimated 2 million Americans suffered from substance abuse disorders directly connected to opioid pain relievers. Roughly 591,000 people suffered from heroin use disorder, which is commonly connected to opioid addiction.
  • Somewhere between 21 and 29 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain end up misusing them.
  • Roughly 4 to 6 percent of those who misuse prescription opioids eventually use heroin. In fact, 80 percent of heroin users first misused opioids.
  • Opioid overdoses increased by 30 percent from July 2016 to September 2017 in 45 states. Over that same period, overdoses increased by 54 percent in 16 of the country’s largest cities.

For those who haven’t been directly affected by the drug crisis, it’s hard to understand the severity of this issue. For perspective, in 2016, drug overdoses killed more Americans than the entire Vietnam War. More than 170 people die every single day from drugs, and most of these deaths are linked to opioids.

What’s Being Done?

It’s easy to overlook the drug crisis in this country – especially if it’s not an issue in your immediate social circle – but that doesn’t make it any less serious. It’s time for more effective measures to be implemented, but what – if anything – is the government doing to address the opioid crisis? And what more can be done in the coming months?

  • Push for Stiffer Penalties

One thing the Trump administration has been aiming to do is stiffen penalties for drug dealers. In fact, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is pushing for the death penalty in certain cases. The argument is that a person in the U.S. can receive a death penalty – or at least life in prison for killing a person, but a drug dealer who kills thousands of people spends little time behind bars.

Whether right or wrong, it’ll be interesting to see how this develops. Proponents of stricter penalties cite countries like Singapore, where harsher sentences have had a positive impact on drug use. Opponents argue this would only lead to more death and brokenness in the system.

  • Curb Opioid Prescriptions

Stiffer penalties address the illegal dealing of opioid prescriptions, but what about those that are legally prescribed by doctors? The Trump administration is also interested in cutting back in this area.

President Trump has made it clear that he wants to reduce opioid prescriptions by one-third over the next three years. He plans to do so via a number of different proactive steps.

The first step is to place limitations on doctors. For example, recent recommendations from the ADA (American Dental Association) asks dentists to limit opioid prescriptions to no more than seven days, which provides adequate time to recover without putting patients at high risk of addiction. The policy also focuses on educating dentists and their patients on the risks associated with pain medication – particularly in young people.

The second step is to increase access to proven treatment and recovery options. Public health officials are currently working on shifting funding towards substance abuse programs and creating more opportunities for healthy long-term treatment.

  • Address the Underlying Issues

Finally, we can’t just focus on the problem of opioid abuse. There are underlying issues at play in almost every situation. Until we deal with these issues, sustainable change will be hard to come by.

“We have a lot of complex problems in this country,” says Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. “Without really addressing all of those physical, emotional, and mental health problems, just focusing on the opioid supply makes no sense — because people still have those problems.”

This bottom-up approach could take years to produce a noticeable change, but it’s important that we start today – rather than waiting for tomorrow.

More Action is Necessary

There are some proactive steps being made towards addressing the opioid crisis, but it’s not nearly enough. Numbers continue to move in the wrong direction and there simply isn’t a lot of progress to write home about.

As individuals, we need to hold each other accountable, provide support for those in need, and pressure those who call the shots to make better and more strategic decisions that put the health of Americans above the profitability of pharmaceutical companies and the institutions that benefit from addiction. Until we do this, nothing will change for the better.

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