The Unknown Epidemic

Last year, the governor of Vermont dedicated his entire State of the State speech to one topic. One would assume that this would be one of the huge issues we always hear about in U.S. politics–taxes, Obamacare, the budget, etc. These guesses would all be wrong. The speech was about the epidemic overrunning his state: opioid drug abuse.

Despite such recognition of the epidemic’s scope, the public does not widely view this issue as a national priority. If you think it is exaggerating to call opioid drug abuse in America an epidemic, just listen to the CDC. Or look at the numbers. Since 2000, Vermont has experienced a 770% increase in treatment for opioid addictions. In Massachusetts, deaths from overdoses in 2014 topped 1000, a stunning increase from the few hundred in 2012. According to the White House fact sheet written on October 21, more people now die from drug overdoses than car crashes. Every day, forty-four people die from prescription drug abuse. Our country is experiencing a full-blown opioid crisis, an issue that is particularly dear to me because New England, my home region, has been particularly hard hit, although every state in the country is currently struggling with opioid abuse.

Understanding how this situation came about requires acknowledging important underlying trends. The first, and most important, is prescription drug abuse. According to the CDC, the amount of prescription painkillers prescribed and sold in the United States has quadrupled since 1999, despite no major rise in pain reported. The number of painkillers prescribed has shot up tremendously, and this rise is naturally linked to increased drug abuse. According to a study cited by Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, four out of five heroin addicts in his state got hooked on opioids through prescription painkillers. A New York Times report on the epidemic in New England states that the price of a bag of heroin is often half that of painkillers, providing a much cheaper high for addicts and a lucrative market for heroin dealers that they have ruthlessly exploited. This is the road that leads many to heroin abuse and often overdose.

Fortunately, communities across the country are taking positive action to combat the crisis. The federal government and many state governments are increasing budgets for programs to fight prescription opioid abuse. Governors are increasing interstate communication to prevent border-hopping of those attempting to get multiple prescriptions, and similar bills have entered Congress. In addition, steps are being taken to address the vast over-prescription of opioid pain medication, a major root of the problem. While all these efforts–including cracking down on the drug traffickers whose work has devastated communities nationwide–are essential, our priority must also be to treat those affected by addiction.

Fortunately, the recent widespread use of the drug Narcan has prevented many fatal overdoses by reversing heroin’s effect on the brain. However, simply preventing deaths does nothing if we do nothing to treat the underlying disease. To do this, society at large must recognize that addiction is a disease. Addiction is federally described as a progressive, reversible brain disease, with the American Society of Addiction Medicine describing it as a, “chronic, relapsing brain disease”. For addicts, a compulsive dependence on substances takes away their freedom. Without treatment, the outcome is often fatal: the affected person overdoses. With millions of Americans currently struggling with addiction to opioids, our focus should be on treating their problem, rather than locking them in jail with the people who sold to them. This requires money, resources and willpower. With the crisis in full swing, many affected communities have the resolve, but it is up to the rest of us to help them obtain money and resources as well.

If the numbers do not prompt us to act, then the stories of those affected must. You will find a person in every community who knows another person struggling with addiction. Often, this is someone in his or her family. Sometimes, this person has been taken from them by an overdose. Maybe it’s a son, or even two. This is true even for those who desire to lead our country, with Carly Fiorina, a Republican candidate for president, having lost a stepdaughter to a drug overdose. The faces of addiction and the personal stories behind those faces drive the urgency of action in a way that no numbers can.

These people are our loved ones, not criminals and menaces to society. In the months and years to come, we must combat this crisis through diverse approaches to fight its wide-ranging causes and effects. However, we cannot forget the people whose lives have been ruined by opioids by denying them the resources and the treatment they need to recover from their addiction.

This will be a long, hard fight. But I believe that we can effectively reverse this scourge infecting American communities and help rebuild the lives of many Americans with thorough, compassionate, and concerted action.

Joseph Cifrino