* for information about opiod epidemics outside North America, see link to full article above *
The opioid epidemic or opioid crisis is a term that generally refers to the rapid increase in the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs in the United States and Canada beginning in the late 1990s and continuing throughout the next two decades. The increase in opioid overdose deaths has been dramatic, and opioids are now responsible for 49,000 of the 72,000 drug overdose deaths overall in the US in 2017. The rate of prolonged opioid use is also increasing globally.
Opioids are a diverse class of moderately strong painkillers, including oxycodone (commonly sold under the trade names OxyContin and Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco), and a very strong painkiller, fentanyl, which is synthesized to resemble other opiates such as opium-derived morphine and heroin. The potency and availability of these substances, despite their high risk of addiction and overdose, have made them popular both as medical treatments and as recreational drugs. Due to their sedative effects on the part of the brain which regulates breathing, the respiratory center of the medulla oblongata, opioids in high doses present the potential for respiratory depression, and may cause respiratory failure and death.
Drug overdoses have become the leading cause of death of Americans under 50, with two-thirds of those deaths from opioids. In 2016, the crisis decreased overall life expectancy of Americans for the second consecutive year. Overall life expectancy fell from 78.7 to 78.6 years. Men were disproportionately more affected due to higher overdose death rates, with life expectancy declining from 76.3 to 76.1 years. Women's life expectancy remained stable at 81.1 years.
What the U.S. Surgeon General dubbed "The Opioid Crisis" likely began with over-prescription of opioids in the 1990s, which led to them becoming the most prescribed class of medications in the United States. Opioids initiated for post surgery or pain management are one of the leading causes of opioid misuse, where approximately 6% of people continued opioid use after trauma or surgery. When people continue to use opioids beyond what a doctor prescribes, whether to minimize pain or induce euphoric feelings, it can mark the beginning stages of an opiate addiction, with a tolerance developing and eventually leading to dependence, when a person relies on the drug to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Writers have pointed to a widespread desire among the public to find a pill for any problem, even if a better solution might be a lifestyle change, such as exercise, improved diet, and stress reduction.
In the late 1990s, around 100 million people or a third of the U.S. population were estimated to be affected by chronic pain. This led to a push by drug companies and the federal government to expand the use of painkilling opioids. In addition to this, organizations like the Joint Commission began to push for more attentive physician response to patient pain, referring to pain as the fifth vital sign. This exacerbated the already increasing number of opioids being prescribed by doctors to patients. Between 1991 and 2011, painkiller prescriptions in the U.S. tripled from 76 million to 219 million per year, and as of 2016 more than 289 million prescriptions were written for opioid drugs per year. Mirroring the positive trend in the volume of opioid pain relievers prescribed is an increase in the admissions for substance abuse treatments and increase in opioid-related deaths. This illustrates how legitimate clinical prescriptions of pain relievers are being diverted through an illegitimate market, leading to misuse, addiction, and death. With the increase in volume, the potency of opioids also increased. By 2002, one in six drug users were being prescribed drugs more powerful than morphine; by 2012, the ratio had doubled to one-in-three. The most commonly prescribed opioids have been oxycodone and hydrocodone.
The epidemic has been described as a "uniquely American problem". The structure of the US healthcare system, in which people not qualifying for government programs are required to obtain private insurance, favors prescribing drugs over more expensive therapies. According to Professor Judith Feinberg, "Most insurance, especially for poor people, won't pay for anything but a pill." Prescription rates for opioids in the US are 40 percent higher than the rate in other developed countries such as Germany or Canada. While the rates of opioid prescriptions increased between 2001 and 2010, the prescription of non-opioid pain relievers (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.) decreased from 38% to 29% of ambulatory visits in the same time period, and there has been no change in the amount of pain reported in the U.S. This has led to differing medical opinions, with some noting that there is little evidence that opioids are effective for chronic pain not caused by cancer.
The annual opioid prescribing rates has been slowly decreasing since 2012, but the number is still high. There are about 58 opioid prescriptions per 100 Americans in 2017. Cities that are smaller, with more dentists and primary care doctors, or with a higher uninsured/unemployment rate tend to have a greater number of opioids prescriptions per resident.
Several studies have been conducted to find out how opioids were primarily acquired, with varying findings. A 2013 national survey indicated that 74% of opioid abusers acquired their opioids directly from a single doctor, or a friend or relative, who in turn received their opioids from a clinician. Though aggressive opioid prescription practices played the biggest role in creating the epidemic, the popularity of illegal substances such as potent heroin and illicit fentanyl have become an increasingly large factor. It has been suggested that decreased supply of prescription opioids caused by opioid prescribing reforms turned people who were already addicted to opioids towards illegal substances. In 2015, approximately 50% of drug overdoses were not the result of an opioid product from a prescription, though most abusers' first exposure had still been by lawful prescription. By 2018, another study suggested that 75% of opioid abusers started their opioid use by taking drugs which had been obtained in a way other than by legitimate prescription.
Globally, Canada follows the United States as the second highest per capita user of prescription opioids.
Effects of the opioid epidemic are multifactorial. The high death rate by overdose, the spread of communicable diseases, and the economic burden are major issues caused by the epidemic.
The opioid epidemic has since emerged as one of the worst drug crises in American history: more than 33,000 people died from overdoses in 2015, nearly equal to the number of deaths from car crashes, with deaths from heroin alone more than from gun homicides. It has also left thousands of children suddenly in need of foster care after their parents have died from an overdose.
In Alberta, a 2017 report stated that emergency department visits as a result of opiate overdose rose 1,000% in the five years prior.
In 2016, a study estimated that the cost of prescription opioid overdoses, abuse and dependence in the United States in 2013 was approximately $78.5 billion, most of which was attributed to health care and criminal justice spending, along with lost productivity. However, in two years, statistics show significantly larger estimates because the epidemic has worsened with overdose and with deaths doubling in the past decade. The White House stated on November 20, 2017, that in 2015 alone the opioid epidemic cost the United States an estimated $504 billion.
Two employees of the University of Notre Dame were killed in a murder-suicide over the refusal of Dr. Todd Graham, 56, to renew the opioid prescription for the wife of Mike Jarvis, 48. United States Representative Jackie Walorski sponsored a bill in the memory of the doctor who would not overprescribe; the Dr. Todd Graham Pain Management Improvement Act is intended to address the opioid epidemic.
According to a study by the National Safety Council, the lifetime odds of dying from an opioid overdose (one in ninety-six) are now greater than the lifetime odds of dying in an automobile accident (one in one-hundred and three) in the United States, using data from 2017.
In 2017, Canada's national report stated that there were 3,987 opioid-related deaths, with 92% of these death being unintentional. The number of death involving fentanyl/ fentanyl analogues increased by 17% compared to 2016.
In the U.S., addiction and overdoses affect mostly Whites and the working class. Native Americans and Alaska Natives experienced a five-fold increase in opioid-overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015, with Native Americans having the highest increase of any demographic group. One physician conjectured that this trend may be due to doctors being less likely to prescribe opiates to patients because of past drug abuse stereotypes.
In the United States, those living in rural areas of the country have been the hardest hit as a percentage of the national population. Canada is similarly affected, with 90% of cities with the highest hospitalization rates having a population below 225,000. Western Canada has an overdose rate nearly 10 times that of the eastern provinces.
Prescription drug abuse rates have been increasing in teenagers with access to parents' medicine cabinets, especially as 12- to 17-year-old abused girls were one-third of all new abusers of prescription drugs in 2006. Teens abuse prescription drugs more than any illicit drug except marijuana, more than cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine combined, per the Office of National Drug Control Policy's 2008 report Prescription for Danger. Deaths from overdose of heroin affect a younger demographic than deaths from other opiates. The Canadian Institute for Health Information found that while overall a third of overdoses were intentional, among those ages 15–24 nearly half were intentional.
Prescription rates for opioids vary widely across the states. In 2012, healthcare providers in the highest-prescribing state wrote almost three times as many opioid prescriptions per person as those in the lowest-prescribing state. Health issues that cause people pain do not vary much from place to place and do not explain this variability in prescribing. In Hawaii, doctors wrote about 52 prescriptions for every 100 people, whereas in Alabama, they wrote almost 143 prescriptions per 100 people. Researchers suspect that the variation results from a lack of consensus among elected officials in different states about how much pain medication to prescribe. A higher rate of prescription drug use does not lead to better health outcomes or patient satisfaction, according to studies.
In Palm Beach County, Florida, overdose deaths went from 149 in 2012 to 588 in 2016. In Middletown, Ohio, overdose deaths quadrupled in the 15 years since 2000. In British Columbia, 967 people died of an opiate overdose in 2016, and the Canadian Medical Association expected over 1,500 deaths in 2017. In Pennsylvania, the number of opioid deaths increased 44 percent from 2016 to 2017, with 5,200 deaths in 2017. Governor Tom Wolf declared a state of emergency in response to the crisis.
In the Media
Media coverage has largely focused on law-enforcement solutions to the epidemic, which portray the issue as criminal, whereas some see it as a medical issue. There has been differential reporting on how white suburban or rural addicts of opioids are portrayed compared to black and Hispanic urban addicts, often of heroin, reinforcing stereotypes of drug users and drug-using offenders. In newspapers, white addicts' stories are often given more space, allowing for a longer backstory explaining how they became addicted, and what potential they had before using drugs. In early 2016 the national desk of the Washington Post began an investigation with assistance from fired DEA regulator Joseph Razzazzisi on the rapidly increasing numbers of opioid related deaths.
While media coverage has focused more heavily on overdoses among whites, use among African, Hispanic and Native Americans has increased at similar rates. Deaths by overdose among white, black, and Native Americans increased by 200–300% from 2010–2014. During this time period, overdoses among Hispanics increased 140%, and the data available on overdoses by Asians was not comprehensive enough to draw a conclusion.
Social media may also be an outlet for detecting illegal online sales of opioids. In 2017, researchers tested a methodology that used keywords to aggregate tweets and employed unsupervised machine learning and web forensic analyses to identify illegal online marketing of opioids. These efforts can aid criminal investigators in identifying violators of the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act.
The opioid epidemic is often discussed in terms of prevention, but helping those who are already addicted is addressed less frequently. Opioid dependence can lead to a number of consequences like contraction of HIV and overdose. For addicted persons who wish to treat their addiction, there are two classes of treatment options available: medical and behavioral. Neither is guaranteed to successfully treat opioid addiction. Which treatment, or combination of treatments, is most effective varies from person to person.
These treatments are doctor-prescribed and -regulated, but differ in their treatment mechanism. Popular treatments include kratom, naloxone, methadone, and buprenorphine, which are more effective when combined with a form of behavioral treatment.
Accessing treatment, however, can be difficult. The strict regulation of opioid treatment programs (OTP) dates back to the early 20th century. Before 1919, physicians prescribed milder forms of opiates to help ween patients off opium. In Webb v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that doctors could no longer prescribe narcotics to aid in treating a narcotic use disorder. Thus, morphine dispensaries emerged in communities to fill the treatment gap and were the early precedents to modern methadone clinics.
Today, nearly 100 years after the Webb v. United States ruling, it is still difficult for providers to prescribe opioids for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) despite the promising data that show individuals addicted to opioids have better outcomes with MAT than abstinence-based treatment programs. OTPs are required to be accredited by SAMHSA or the DEA to operate and accreditation is a lengthy, time- and resource-consuming process including intensive training and site visit reviews. To stay in operation, OTPs must submit to re-accreditation every 1–3 years.
Accredited OTPs are also able to administer buprenorphine, provided that those prescribing and administering the drug have completed the 8–24 hours of SAMHSA training. Office-based physicians who wish to prescribe buprenorphine for the treatment of opioid use disorder must also complete the required training, as well as apply for and receive a waiver from SAMHSA. Under regulation, physicians may not have more than 30 buprenorphine patients their first year of prescribing the drug. They may apply to have this limit increased to 100 patients by year two and 275 patients by year three.
In December 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) began a survey of the laws and regulations around OTPs and MAT and found that these practices were barriers to getting people with opioid use disorders the treatment they need. Despite the fact that there is a shortage of OTPs across the United States, many clinicians do not want to start their own because the time and effort required to comply with SAMHSA and DEA regulations is prohibitive.
Individual-level barriers to accessing MAT also exist. The federal regulations regarding program admission into OTPs are considered "high-threshold." Individuals seeking treatment must meet several criteria to be eligible for treatment. These criteria require potential patients to:
* Have a diagnosable opioid use disorder, according to the DSM-5, * Be actively addicted to opioids at the time of intake, and * Have been addicted to opioids for at least one year before beginning MAT.
In addition to these federal criteria, each state may have its own criteria individuals must meet. The U.S. GAO also cited the cost of treatment and lack of health insurance coverage for MAT as barriers for many addicted to opioids. While methadone treatments are covered by Medicaid for low-income individuals, the extent of coverage depends on which state they are in and if the state has opted into Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
Buprenorphine, on the other hand, is not covered by Medicaid or, often, even by private health insurers. Because buprenorphine must typically be paid for out-of-pocket, lower-income individuals are often priced out of the lower-risk MAT. In some areas this creates major disparities along racial lines with the higher-risk treatment utilized by lower-income individuals - disproportionately represented by people of color - and the lower-risk treatment only accessible to higher-income individuals - disproportionately represented by whites.
Other individual-level barriers may include transportation, especially for those who live in rural areas. The nearest OTP could be up to an hour away, and when daily methadone doses are required for treatment, this may interfere with the success of the MAT or the client's compliance in the program. In rural Vermont, 48% of respondents in treatment reported they had missed an appointment due to travel challenges. Because of issues like these, it is estimated that, nationwide, only 10% of individuals who would be eligible to receive MAT actually receive the treatment.
The price of opioid treatment may vary due to different factors, but the cost of treatment can range from $6,000 to $15,000 a year. Based on the research, most addicts come from lagging economic environment which multiple addicts do not have the support or funding to complete alternative medication for the addictions.
Methadone has been used for opioid dependence since 1964, and is the most-studied of the pharmacological treatment options. It is a synthetic long-acting opioid, so it can replace multiple heroin uses by being taken once daily. It works by binding to the opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, activating them, reducing withdrawal symptoms and cravings while suppressing the "high" that other opioids can elicit. The decrease in withdrawal symptoms and cravings allow the user to slowly taper off the drug in a controlled manner, decreasing the likelihood of relapse. It is not accessible to all addicts. It is a regulated substance, and requires that each dose be picked up from a methadone clinic daily. This can be inconvenient as some patients are unable to travel to a clinic, or wish to avoid the stigma associated with drug addiction.
Buprenorphine is used similarly to methadone, with some doctors recommending it as the best solution for medication-assisted treatment to help people reduce or quit their use of heroin or other opiates. It is claimed to be safer and less regulated than methadone, with month-long prescriptions allowed. It is also said to eliminate opiate withdrawal symptoms and cravings in many patients without inducing euphoria. Probuphine is an implantable form of buprenorphine lasting six months. Rates of buprenorphine use increased between 2003 and 2011, with sales increasing, on average, by 40%.
Unlike methadone treatment, which must be performed in a highly structured clinic, buprenorphine, according to SAMHSA, can be prescribed or dispensed in physician offices. Patients can thereby receive a full year of treatment for a fraction of the cost of detox programs.
Buprenorphine/naloxone is a combination medication that has been approved by the FDA in 2002 for treatment of opioid dependence. It is a combination medication that contains two separate drugs: buprenorphine and naloxone.
Buprenorphine works as a partial opioid agonist. It is given in combination with Naloxone because Naloxone works as an opioid antagonist, meaning it will block the effects of the opioid medication. This combination drug can help by reducing a person’s withdrawal symptoms while they are discontinuing opioids after a period of chronic use.
While Suboxone is indicated for the treatment of opioid dependence, it does contain an opioid which means a person may be at risk of developing dependence to it as well.
Behavioral treatment is less effective without medical treatment during the initial detoxification. It has similarly been shown that medical treatments tend to get better results when accompanied by behavioral treatment. For opioid dependence, popular non-pharmacological treatment options include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), group or individual therapy, residential treatment centers, and twelve-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous. Since addictive behavior is a learned behavior in opioid dependence, cognitive behavioral therapy aims to promote positive motivation to change that behavior.
Harm reduction programs operate under the understanding that certain levels of drug use are inevitable and focus on minimizing adverse effects associated with drug use rather than stopping the behavior itself. In the context of the opioid epidemic, harm reduction strategies are designed to improve health outcomes and reduce overdose deaths.
Naloxone (most commonly sold under the brand name Narcan) can be used as a rescue medication for opioid overdose or as a preventive measure for those wanting to stop using opiates. It is an opioid antagonist, meaning it binds to opioid receptors, which prevents them from being activated by opiates. It binds more strongly than other drugs, so that when someone is overdosing on opioids, naloxone can be administered, allowing it to take the place of the opioid drug in the person's receptors, turning them off. This blocks the effect of the receptors.
Many states have made Narcan available for purchase without a prescription. Additionally, peace officers in many districts have begun carrying Narcan on a routine basis.
Take-home naloxone overdose prevention kits have shown promise in areas exhibiting rapid increases in opioid overdoses and deaths due to the increased availability of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Early implementation of programs that widely distribute THN kits across these areas can substantially reduce the number of opioid overdose deaths. Additionally, persons at risk for opioid overdose did not engage in riskier, compensatory drug use as a result of having access to naloxone kits.
Safe injection sites
North America's first safe injection site, Insite, opened in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighborhood of Vancouver in 2003. Rather than trying to prevent people from using drugs, safe injection sites are intended to allow addicts to use drugs in an environment where help is immediately available in the event of an overdose. Health Canada has licensed 16 safe injection sites in the country. In Canada, about half of overdoses resulting in hospitalization were accidental, while a third were deliberate overdoses.
Despite the illegality of injecting illicit drugs in most places around the world, many injectable drug users report willingness to utilize safe injection sites. Of these willing injectable drug users, those at especially high risk for opioid overdose were significantly more likely to be willing to use a safe injection site. This observed willingness suggests that safe injection sites would be well utilized by the very individuals who could benefit most from them.
As of 2018, legislation in the US did not allow for the opening of safe injection sites; there were no government-sponsored sites but several efforts were underway to try to create them.
Critics of safe injection sites cite enabling drug users and even exacerbation of drug use as reasons for denying these programs. However, data as of 2014 suggested that safe injection sites could reduce overdoses while not increasing the number of drug users.
Needle exchange programs
The CDC defines needle exchange programs (NEP), also known as syringe services programs, as “community-based programs that provide access to sterile needles and syringes free of cost and facilitate safe disposal of used needles and syringes”. NEP were first established in the U.S. in the late 1980s as a response to the HIV pandemic. Because federal funding has long been banned from being used for NEP, their prominence in the U.S. has been minimal. However, in early 2016, in the face of the ever-increasing heroin crisis, Congress effectively rolled back those regulations and is now allowing federal funding to support certain aspects of NEP. NEP are cited by the CDC as a vital aspect of the multi-faceted approach to the opioid crisis.
While opposition to NEP includes fears of increased drug use, studies have shown that they do not increase drug use among users or within a community. NEP have also been known to increase admittance into addiction treatment centers, offer counseling, housing support and help users begin the path to recovery through outreach from trusted staff. In addition, NEP that operate on a one-for-one basis help to drastically reduce the amount of discarded needles in public. Both the Center for Disease Control and National Institute of Health support the idea that NEP are a crucial aspect to a comprehensive approach to the opioid crisis.
Use of blue lights
As of 2018, some retailers had begun experimenting with the use of blue light bulbs in bathrooms in order to deter addicts from using such spaces to inject opiates. Blue lights are said to make finding veins to inject more difficult.
Opiates such as morphine have been used for pain relief in the United States since the 1800s, and were used during the American Civil War.Opiates soon became known as a wonder drug and were prescribed for a wide array of ailments, even for relatively minor treatments such as cough relief. Bayer began marketing heroin commercially in 1898. Beginning around 1920, however, the addictiveness was recognized, and doctors became reluctant to prescribe opiates. Heroin was made an illegal drug with the Anti-Heroin Act of 1924, in which the U.S. Congress banned the sale, importation, or manufacture of heroin.
In the 1950s, heroin addiction was known among jazz musicians, but still fairly uncommon among average Americans, many of whom saw it as a frightening condition. The fear extended into the 1960s and 1970s, although it became common to hear or read about drugs such as marijuana and psychedelics, which were widely used at rock concerts like Woodstock. Heroin addiction began to make the news around 1970 when rock star Janis Joplin died from an overdose. During and after the Vietnam War, addicted soldiers returned from Vietnam, where heroin was easily bought. Heroin addiction grew within low-income housing projects during the same time period. In 1971, congressmen released an explosive report on the growing heroin epidemic among U.S. servicemen in Vietnam, finding that ten to fifteen percent were addicted to heroin. "The Nixon White House panicked," wrote political editor Christopher Caldwell, and declared drug abuse "public enemy number one". By 1973, there were 1.5 overdose deaths per 100,000 people.
Modern prescription opiates such as Vicodin and Percocet entered the market in the 1970s, but acceptance took several years and doctors were apprehensive about prescribing them. Until the 1980s, physicians had been taught to avoid prescribing opioids because of their addictive nature. A brief letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in January 1980, titled "Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics", generated much attention and changed this thinking. A group of researchers in Canada claim that the letter may have originated and contributed to the opioid crisis. The NEJM published its rebuttal to the 1980 letter in June 2017, pointing out among other things that the conclusions were based on hospitalized patients only, and not on patients taking the drugs after they were sent home. The original author, Dr. Hershel Jick, has said that he never intended for the article to justify widespread opioid use.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, the crack epidemic followed widespread cocaine use in American cities. The death rate was worse, reaching almost 2 per 100,000. In 1982, Vice President George H. W. Bush and his aides began pushing for the involvement of the CIA and the U.S. military in drug interdiction efforts, the so-called War on Drugs. The initial promotion and marketing of OxyContin was an organized effort throughout 1996–2001, to dismiss the risk of opioid addiction. Purdue Pharma hosted over forty promotional conferences at three select locations in the southwest and southeast of the United States. Coupling a convincing "Partners Against Pain" campaign with an incentivized bonus system, Purdue trained its salesforce to convey the message that the risk of addiction was under one percent, ultimately influencing the prescribing habits of the medical professionals that attended these conferences. In 2016, the opioid epidemic was killing on average 10.3 people per 100,000, with the highest rates including over 30 per 100,000 in New Hampshire and over 40 per 100,000 in West Virginia.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2016 more than 11 million Americans misused prescription opioids, nearly 1 million used heroin, and 2.1 million had an addiction to prescription opioids or heroin.
While rates of overdose of legal prescription opiates has leveled off in the past decade, overdoses of illicit opiates have surged since 2010, nearly tripling.
In a 2015 report, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration stated that "overdose deaths, particularly from prescription drugs and heroin, have reached epidemic levels." Nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths in 2016 involved prescription opioids. From 1999 to 2008, overdose death rates, sales, and substance abuse treatment admissions related to opioid pain relievers all increased substantially. By 2015, there were more than 50,000 annual deaths from drug overdose, causing more deaths than either car accidents or guns.
In 2016, around 64,000 Americans died from overdoses, 21 percent more than the approximately 53,000 in 2015. By comparison, the figure was 16,000 in 2010, and 4,000 in 1999. While death rates varied by state, in 2017 public health experts estimated that nationwide over 500,000 people could die from the epidemic over the next 10 years. In Canada, half of the overdoses were accidental, while a third were intentional. The remainder were unknown. Many of the deaths are from an extremely potent opioid, fentanyl, which is trafficked from Mexico. The epidemic cost the United States an estimated $504 billion in 2015.
In 2017, around 72,000 Americans died from drug overdose. 29,406 were due to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, 15,958 were associated with heroin overuse, 14,958 deaths were associated with natural and semi-synthetic opioids overuse, 10,721 deaths were associated with cocaine overuse, 10,721 deaths were associated with methamphetamine overuse, and 3,295 deaths were associated with methadone overuse.
Between 4–6% of people who misuse prescription opioids turn to heroin, and 80% of heroin addicts began by abusing prescription opioids. Many people addicted to opioids switch from taking prescription opioids to heroin because heroin is less expensive and more easily acquired on the black market.
Men are more likely to overdose on heroin. Overall, opioids are among the biggest killers of every race.
Heroin use has been increasing over the years. An estimated 374,000 Americans used heroin in 2002–2005, and this estimate grew to nearly double where 607,000 of Americans had used heroin in 2009–2011. In 2014, it was estimated that more than half a million Americans had an addiction to heroin.
Oxycodone is the most widely used recreational opioid in the United States. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 11 million people in the U.S. consume oxycodone in a non-medical way annually.
Oxycodone was first made available in the United States in 1939. In the 1970s, the FDA classified oxycodone as a Schedule II drug, indicating a high potential for abuse and addiction. In 1996, Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin, a controlled release formulation of oxycodone. The FDA approved relabeling the reformulated version as abuse-resistant. However, drug users quickly learned how to simply crush the controlled release tablet to swallow, inhale, or inject the high-strength opioid for a powerful morphine-like high. In fact, Purdue's private testing conducted in 1995 determined that 68% of the oxycodone could be extracted from an OxyContin tablet when crushed.
In 2007, Purdue paid $600 million in fines after being prosecuted for making false claims about the risk of drug abuse associated with oxycodone. In 2010, Purdue Pharma reformulated OxyContin, using a polymer to make the pills extremely difficult to crush or dissolve in water to reduce OxyContin abuse. OxyContin use following the 2010 reformulation declined slightly while no changes were observed in the use of other opioids.
OxyContin was removed from the Canadian drug formulary in 2012. In June 2017, the FDA asked the manufacturer to remove its long-acting form of oxymorphone (Opana ER) from the US market, because the drug's benefits may no longer outweigh its risks, this being the first time the agency has asked to remove a currently marketed opioid pain medication from sale due to public health consequences of abuse.
Hydrocodone is second among the list of top prescribed opioid painkillers, but it is also high on the list of most abused. In 2011, the abuse or misuse of hydrocodone was responsible for more than 97,000 visits to the emergency room. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rescheduled it from a Schedule III drug to a Schedule II drug, recognizing its high potential for abuse and addiction.
Hydrocodone can be prescribed under a different brand name. These brand names include Norco, Lortab, and Vicodin. Hydrocodone can also exist in other formulations where it is combined with another non-opioid pain reliever such as acetaminophen, or even a cough suppressant.
When opioids like hydrocodone are taken as prescribed, for the indication prescribed, and for a short period of time, then the risk of abuse and addiction is small. Problems have surfaced over the last decade however, due to its wide overuse and misuse in the setting of chronic pain.
The elderly are at an increased risk for opioid related overdose because several different classes of medications can interact with opioids and older patients are often taking multiple prescribed medications at a single time. One class of drug that is commonly prescribed in this patient population is benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines by themselves put older people at risk for falls and fractures due to associated side effects related to dizziness and sedation. Opioids by themselves put older people at risk of respiratory depression and impaired ability to operate vehicles and other machinery. Combining these two drugs together not only increases a person's risk of the aforementioned adverse effects, but it can increase a person's risk of overdose and death.
Statistics show that hydrocodone ranks in at number 4 on the list of most commonly abused drugs in the United States and that more than 40% of drug related emergencies occur due to opioid abuse. Twenty percent of opioid abusers, another statistic reports, were prescribed the medication they abused.
Hydrocodone was declared the most widely prescribed opioid between 2007 and 2016, and in 2015 the International Narcotics Control Board reported that greater than 98% of the hydrocodone consumed in the entire world was consumed by Americans.
Codeine is a prescription opiate used to treat mild to moderate pain. It is available as a tablet and cough syrup. Approximately 33 million people use codeine each year. A 2013 study on the concoction of codeine with alcohol or soda, also known as “purple drank,” discovered that codeine is most prevalently abused by men, Native Americans and Hispanics, urban students, and LGBT persons.
Adolescent use of prescription codeine for recreational abuse raises concerns. In 2008, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) reported 3 million young adults, ranging from ages 12 to 25, had used codeine-based cough syrup to get high. In 2014, 467,000 American adolescents used these opiates for non-medical purposes, and 168,000 of these were considered to have an addiction. Due to its high rates of abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reclassified codeine as Schedule III for increased meticulous monitoring.
There have always been drug addicts in need of help, but the scale of the present wave of heroin and opioid abuse is unprecedented. In Maryland, the first six months of 2015 saw 121 fentanyl deaths. In the first six months of 2016, the figure rose to 446.
Fentanyl, a newer synthetic opioid painkiller, is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, with only 2 mg becoming a lethal dose. It is pure white, odorless and flavorless, with a potency strong enough that police and first responders helping overdose victims have themselves overdosed by simply touching or inhaling a small amount. As a result, the DEA has recommended that officers not field test drugs if fentanyl is suspected, but instead collect and send samples to a laboratory for analysis. "Exposure via inhalation or skin absorption can be deadly," they state.
Over a two-year period, close to $800 million worth of fentanyl pills were illegally sold online to the U.S. by Chinese distributors. The drug is usually manufactured in China, then shipped to Mexico where it is processed and packaged, which is then smuggled into the U.S. by drug cartels. A large amount is also purchased online and shipped through the U.S. Postal Service. It can also be purchased directly from China, which has become a major manufacturer of various synthetic drugs illegal in the U.S. AP reporters found multiple sellers in China willing to ship carfentanyl, an elephant tranquilizer that is so potent it has been considered a chemical weapon. The sellers also offered advice on how to evade screening by US authorities.
Deaths from fentanyl increased by 540 percent across the United States since 2015. This accounts for almost "all the increase in drug overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016", according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Fentanyl-laced heroin has become a big problem for major cities, including Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago. Its use has caused a spike in deaths among users of heroin and prescription painkillers, while becoming easier to obtain and conceal. Some arrested or hospitalized users are surprised to find that what they thought was heroin was actually fentanyl. According to CDC director Thomas Frieden:
As overdose deaths involving heroin more than quadrupled since 2010, what was a slow stream of illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, is now a flood, with the amount of the powerful drug seized by law enforcement increasing dramatically. America is awash in opioids; urgent action is critical.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), death rates from synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, increased over 72% from 2014 to 2015. In addition, the CDC reports that the total deaths from opioid overdoses may be under-counted, since they do not include deaths that are associated with synthetic opioids which are used as pain relievers. The CDC presumes that a large proportion of the increase in deaths is due to illegally-made fentanyl; as the statistics on overdose deaths (as of 2015) do not distinguish pharmaceutical fentanyl from illegally-made fentanyl, the actual death rate could, therefore, be much higher than reported.
Those taking fentanyl-laced heroin are more likely to overdose because they do not know they also are ingesting the more powerful drug. The most high-profile death involving an accidental overdose of fentanyl was singer Prince.
Fentanyl has surpassed heroin as a killer in several locales: in all of 2014 the CDC identified 998 fatal fentanyl overdoses in Ohio, which is the same number of deaths recorded in just the first five months of 2015. The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio stated:
One of the truly terrifying things is the pills are pressed and dyed to look like oxycodone. If you are using oxycodone and take fentanyl not knowing it is fentanyl, that is an overdose waiting to happen. Each of those pills is a potential overdose death.
In 2016, the medical news site STAT reported that while Mexican cartels are the main source of heroin smuggled into the U.S., Chinese suppliers provide both raw fentanyl and the machinery necessary for its production. In British Columbia, police discovered a lab making 100,000 fentanyl pills each month, which they were shipping to Calgary, Alberta. 90 people in Calgary overdosed on the drug in 2015. In Southern California, a home-operated drug lab with six pill presses was uncovered by federal agents; each machine was capable of producing thousands of pills an hour.
Overdoses involving fentanyl have greatly contributed to the havoc caused by the opioid epidemic. In New Hampshire, two thirds of the fatal drug overdoses involved fentanyl, and most do not know that they are taking fentanyl. In 2017, a cluster of fentanyl overdoses in Florida was found to be caused by street sales of fentanyl pills sold as Xanax. According to the DEA, one kilogram (2.2 lb) of fentanyl can be bought in China for $3,000 to $5,000, and then smuggled into the United States by mail or Mexican drug cartels to generate over $1.5 million in revenue. The profitability of this drug has led dealers to adulterate other drugs with fentanyl without the knowledge of the drug user.
A "pill mill" is a clinic that dispenses narcotics to patients without a legitimate medical purpose. This is done at clinics and doctors offices, where doctors examine patients extremely quickly with a purpose of prescribing painkillers. These clinics often charge an office fee of $200 to $400 and can see up to 60 patients a day, which is very profitable for the clinic. Pill mills are also large suppliers of the illegal painkiller black markets on the streets. Dealers may hire people to go to pill mills to get painkiller prescriptions. There have been attempts to shut down pill mills, and 250 pill mills in Florida were shut down in 2015. Florida clinics also are no longer allowed to dispense painkillers directly from their clinics, which has helped reduce the distribution of prescription opiates. Since the implementation of pill mill laws and drug monitoring programs in Florida, high-risk patients (defined as those who use both benzodiazepines and opioids, those who have been using high opioid doses for extended periods of time, or "opioid shoppers" that obtain their opioid painkillers from multiple sources) have shown significant reductions in opioid use.
As the number of opioid prescriptions rose, drug cartels began flooding the U.S. with heroin from Mexico. For many opioid users, heroin was cheaper, more potent, and often easier to acquire than prescription medications. According to the CDC, tighter prescription policies by doctors did not necessarily lead to this increased heroin use. The main suppliers of heroin to the U.S. have been Mexican transnational criminal organizations. From 2005–2009, Mexican heroin production increased by over 600%, from an estimated 8 metric tons in 2005 to 50 metric tons in 2009. Between 2010 and 2014, the amount seized at the border more than doubled. According to the DEA, smugglers and distributors "profit primarily by putting drugs on the street and have become crucial to the Mexican cartels."
Illicit fentanyl is commonly made in Mexico and trafficked by cartels. North America's dominant trafficking group is Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, which has been linked to 80 percent of the fentanyl seized in New York.