Addiction Experts: Drug Crisis May Get Worse Before It Gets Better

By Kelly Burch 12/27/17

According to experts, the demand for drugs is still growing despite various interventions to curb the crisis.

person pouring white pills out of a bottle and into their hand

Many people around the country are wondering when we will hit rock bottom with the opioid crisis, especially after reports have been released indicating that drug-related deaths are increasing more than ever. However, addiction experts say that the crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better. 

Donald S. Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, told The Inquirer in a series of interviews about the situation that the opioid crisis reminds him of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. 

“We as a medical profession and we as a society let the AIDS epidemic go from what was a few thousand to what grew to be close to 100 million cases around the planet,” he said. “And I think we have to realize that we’re on a trajectory that may get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University Heller School for Social Policy and Management, said that in addition to people with lifelong addictions and the white, rural American population that are often seen as being at risk for opioid overdose, there is another group that goes unnoticed: 40- to 80-year-olds who have been prescribed high-powered opioids for years. Their deaths are often classified as heart disease or infection, without considering the role of opioids, he said. 

“No one wants grandma to have died of an overdose,” Kolodny said, adding this is “an addiction epidemic, not a drug abuse problem.”

Caroline Johnson, acting deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said that deaths in 2017 might not rise as rapidly as they did during 2016. Although that is a sliver of hope, she says it is largely due to the use of the overdose reversal drug Narcan, rather than due to fewer people abusing opioids. 

“That is sort of what Narcan is all about,” she said. “We aren’t treating addiction, we are just preventing death.”

Despite the lives being saved by Narcan, synthetic opioids are making drug abuse even more deadly, according to Gary Tuggle, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Philadelphia Division. In one week, the DEA seized 40 kilograms of fentanyl bound for Philadelphia, he said, enough for tens of millions of doses—demand keeps that flow coming. 

“We have an insatiable appetite for drugs, both licit and illicit,” Tuggle said. When cartels couldn’t keep up heroin consumption they turned to more powerful synthetics. “Maybe someone figured, ‘We have this demand, we don’t have the product, let’s just use fentanyl.’”

Burke, who worked on the AIDS epidemic, said that despite efforts, medical, social and law enforcement leaders have not figured out how to stem the opioid crisis. 

“So far [interventions] don’t seem to be making much difference,” he said.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Kelly Burch Contrib.jpg

Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.