Opiate drug abuse has long been a problem in America. Heroin and prescription opiates cause death from overdose, accidents and health problems, namely HIV and Hepatitis C every single year.
In the past, Heroin was considered the culprit when it came to destructive, addictive opiate drugs, especially when needle-sharing began to fuel the HIV epidemic.
Still, heroin was seen as largely an urban, inner-city problem. Heroin addicts were stereotypically poor minorities. The only other stereotype heroin addict was the artist or musician. More focus was given on drugs like marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines. Heroin faded into the background, and other opiate drugs such as Oxycodone, Hydrocodone and Fentanyl got little attention, despite their widespread use.
This has all changed in the last few years, as a surge in prescription drug abuse has caught the attention of medical, legal and government officials.
The “new” heroin addict is white, and comes from a “good” family. This is unfortunately what it has taken to finally get the attention it deserves, and to finally destigmatize opiate addiction.
What Caused This Epidemic?
The ease of obtaining prescription drugs is a big part of the problem. Doctors and dentists doled out prescriptions for Vicodin, Norco, Oxycontin and more for every ache and pain. Aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies and incentives for prescribing their products has no doubt played a huge role in the problem. Lax regulations also helped things along. For a long time, it was relatively easy to get prescriptions from multiple doctors and multiple pharmacies. While tighter regulations make this more difficult, the problem persists.
Opiates Find Their Way To Suburbia
There’s a good chance that everyone knows at least one opiate addict — whether they realize it or not. It could be your son, your daughter or one of your parents or siblings. It could easily be your teacher, the nurse at your doctor’s office or the person who cuts your hair. Opiate users no longer fit the stereotype alleyway addict in the city. Now that middle-class white kids are dying from overdoses and teachers, lawyers and cops are turning up with major opiate addictions, the problem is definitely getting attention.
And it’s not just prescription painkillers these suburbanites are abusing — it’s heroin, too. More and more people are finding it increasingly difficult to get their pills, but they can’t stop taking them or they will get sick. The next step is to get heroin, often easier and cheaper to obtain.
So What Is Being Done?
Recently, major changes have been made to address this problem, with more on the way. This is a good thing — for some. Changes in the way prescription drugs are prescribed seems like an obvious solution, but it can cause issues, as well.
On January 12, 2016, President Obama will roll out his final State of the Union Address. During this address, the President will discuss new policies and strategies that will be implemented to address the growing prescription opiate and heroin epidemic. Policies will include increased provider training, increased public service announcements and improved access to treatment.
What About Changes That Have Already Been Made?
The past couple years have seen an overall tightening of regulations around the prescribing of opiate pain medication. This is in an attempt to reduce the instance of abuse of these drugs. While this would seem a step in the right direction, not everyone would agree. Veterans, in particular are struggling with these restrictions, as they mean that veterans must attend more frequent appointments at their local VA in order to fill prescriptions. Unfortunately, the VA is notoriously overburdened and appointments are often few and far between. This means that Veterans with chronic health problems and injuries are unable to get the medication needed to help their pain.
Also, tightened regulations have prompted an increase in heroin use. People who can’t get their Vicodin or Oxycontin are resorting to heroin to keep from getting sick.
What Does It Mean, And What’s Next?
It means that while attempts at prevention are certainly important, treating opiate addiction and dependence is just as important. People need help. Cutting off the supply of prescription drugs doesn’t end the addiction. Treatment is what is needed. And, stigma needs to be addressed. Too often, people who have become dependent or addicted to opiate pain medication don’t come forward for help. Too often, medical providers miss the signs of addiction altogether and patients continue to go untreated.
What The Future Holds
Hopefully, there will be help for those who are suffering from this oppressive, destructive addiction. Overdose is a leading cause of death among American adults. Kids are going from stealing Dad’s pills to buying heroin. Elderly patients are becoming dependent on opiate pain medications and doctors are missing the signs of addiction. People who need pain medication are being denied access due to inadequate care.
Policies need to change, but most of all, treatment needs to be accessible, and people need to feel safe enough to get help.