The level of opioid abuse in the United States has reached a critical point, and appropriate action is urgently needed to tackle the problem, according to a recent op-ed piece in The Hill.
Clare Waismann, a Certified Addiction Treatment Counselor (CATC) with two decades of experience treating opioid-dependent patients, said that the opioid addiction epidemic in the U.S. could be significantly curbed if we can overcome the “political and institutional inertia” that has prevented effective policies from being put in place.
“After witnessing the challenges faced by patients struggling with addiction, I have become ever more vocal in my advocacy for a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to fighting back against the opioid epidemic.”
The history of opioids in the U.S.
The article includes a brief history of opioid use and abuse in the United States, beginning in the 19th century when morphine was considered a “wonder drug,” and used to provide pain relief to wounded soldiers during the Civil War.
At the turn of the 20th century, Bayer began marketing heroin – a drug even more powerful than morphine – which was used to treat many conditions until doctors began recognizing its addictive properties two decades later.
Modern prescription opioids such as Vicodin and Percocet appeared on the market in the 1970s, but the real prescription opioid epidemic didn’t begin until the late 1990s, when prescriptions of OxyContin and other new painkillers began to skyrocket:
“In 2012 alone, doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers, enough to give every adult in the country their own bottle of pills. In addition to increased prescription drug use, there has been an uptick in illicit heroin trafficking in the past decade. Much of the U.S. supply is funneled through Latin American trafficking networks.”
The combined effects of over-prescription and the flood of illicit heroin hitting the streets of America have created a massive addiction problem; there are currently almost 2 million Americans who have a dependency problem with prescription opioids, and nearly 600,000 who suffer from heroin abuse or dependency, according to Waismann.
Necessary steps towards tackling the problem
This year, Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which was aimed at curbing heroin and prescription drug abuse, but the bill included no provisions for funding. Partisan bickering prevented the appropriation of special funding for programs, and as of yet, politicians are only making promises to do something in the future.
To successfully combat the epidemic, Waismann argues, there must be appropriate action taken at federal, state and local levels. The first priority is to address the issue of over-prescription of opioids by doctors.
Waismann recommends educating people about the long-term effects of opioid use and introducing stricter guidelines for prescribing painkillers. Improved monitoring of potential at-risk patients is also needed, along with the establishment of a national database “that allows physician and pharmacist review of all prescriptions a patient has received.”
The database would help prevent “doctor shopping,” which allows patients to obtain multiple prescriptions, and would reduce “irresponsible prescribing” by doctors.
The second priority is to secure our national borders and ports against the flood of opioids entering the country illegally, such as the illicit heroin traffic from Mexico, and the importation of synthetic opioids from China.
The third priority is treatment, which, according to Waismann, is “one of the most important tools in the fight against opioids.” Unfortunately, the war on drugs in the United States rarely includes funding towards increasing access to drug treatment programs. She also stresses the importance of increasing funding for mental health programs, since many patients develop dependency on opioids after using them to deal with psychological or emotional issues.
Without taking these recommended actions, our nation will face an ever-growing opioid epidemic, one which is already nearly out of control.
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