The opioid epidemic, which is presently turning a huge chunk of the United States population into drug addicts, killed more people last year than the 19-year Vietnam War, a new report shows.
Drug overdoses killed roughly 64,000 people in the United States last year, according to the first governmental account of nationwide drug deaths to cover all of 2016. It’s a staggering rise of more than 22 percent over the 52,404 drug deaths recorded the previous year — and even higher than The New York Times’s estimate in June, which was based on earlier preliminary data.
Drug overdoses are expected to remain the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, as synthetic opioids — primarily fentanyl and its analogues — continue to push the death count higher. Drug deaths involving fentanyl more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, accompanied by an upturn in deaths involving cocaine and methamphetamine. Together they add up to an epidemic of drug overdoses that is killing people at a faster rate than the H.I.V. epidemic at its peak.
And while the final data for 2017 won’t be available until the end of the year, all indications show that 2017 will be the third record breaker in a row. But what does it mean to call the opioid crisis an epidemic? To compare it with gun violence, which has also received a high level of coverage, guns resulted in just over 15,000 deaths according to the Gun Violence Archive. This means that overdoses killed four times more Americans than firearms in 2016.
In 2015, there were 35,092 deaths resulting from car accidents. That’s right, it is actually safer to travel along the great American landscape next to a legion of bad drivers than it is to take medication designed to knock out pain.
Even at the height of the AIDS crisis back in 1995, which resulted in the deaths of 50,628 people, this horrible disease was no match for the grim reaper with oxycodone in his pocket. In fact, drug addiction, specifically the grips of opioids, has the sharpest scythe—cutting down more Americans than the peak murder season of 1991, which claimed 24,703 lives, and even more than when suicide hit a high note in 2015, leaving 44,193 dead.
Only 15,466 opioid deaths last year were due to heroin, according to the CDC’s latest statistics. The rest were all medications doled out to the American people by their friendly neighborhood physician.
Sadly, the situation is going to get worse before it gets better.
The report shows that the United States has been on a hell-bent path to destruction by opioids since the 1980s. But not much was ever done to prevent the problem from becoming a violent entity capable of out-killing some of the leading causes of death the nation has ever experienced.
“So it is clear that police and other criminal justice agencies, along with public health departments, drug treatment and social service providers, elected officials, and others, must step up their efforts to prevent new cases of opioid addiction, while helping addicted persons through the long and difficult process of getting free of opioid drugs,” the PERF report reads.
Sadly, even if more treatment options are made available, there is evidence to suggest that people jammed up by opioid addiction may never be able to lead normal lives—or get sober.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said earlier this year that almost 70 percent of those treated for opioid addiction would fail at recovery. There is no “cure” for addiction, according to Dr. G. Caleb Alexander, which means those “people with substance use disorders have a lifelong vulnerability” to the disease.
Is Cannabis A Cure For The Opioid Crisis?
How do you confront an epidemic that has claimed more lives than the HIV/AIDS crisis at its peak? How do you counteract a system that incentivizes the flow of prescription painkillers from doctors to patients and ends up getting 3 million Americans addicted each year? And how do you reverse surging demand for prescription opioids’ illegal substitutes, which are more damaging and toxic but far cheaper and easier to obtain?
The solutions need not come only from doctors, though. Despite the fact that addiction is a medical condition, it’s primarily dealt with by the criminal-justice system–a practice the commission wants to change. It advocated expanding drug courts, which give people the option to enter a recovery program rather than prison, to all 93 federal court jurisdictions in the U.S.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, there is evidence that legal marijuana is helping the state reduce the number of opioid-related deaths.
Research published in the latest edition of the American Journal of Public Health shows the state has encountered a six percent drop in opioid deaths since the state legalized marijuana back in 2014. The study suggests that nationwide legalization could provide a solution.
“Legalization of cannabis in Colorado was associated with short-term reductions in opioid-related deaths,” the study concludes. “As additional data become available, research should replicate these analyses in other states with legal recreational cannabis.”
It will be a long haul to end America’s opioid epidemic, a crisis that was decades in the making. But at least we know where to take our first steps.