Drug Overdose Deaths In U.S. Reach Record High

By May Wilkerson 01/21/16

Despite efforts to crackdown on abuse, the problem seems to only be getting worse.

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Deaths from drug overdoses continue to skyrocket in the United States, reaching a new high of 47,055 deaths in 2014, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As has been widely reported, the rise in overdose fatalities is being largely driven by a surge in the use of opiates, which includes both heroin and prescription painkillers like Oxycontin. More than 60% of the deaths from overdoses involved opiates, the study found.

The numbers are not surprising, since opioid use in the United States has been rising for more than two decades. Dr. Ted Cicero, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis and an opiate-use researcher, says the surge in opioid use began in the mid-1990s, when pharmaceutical companies introduced potent new painkillers like Oxycontin to the market.

“There was a big push saying we had a big problem with the undertreatment of pain,” said Cicero. “Opioid prescriptions skyrocketed from the early '90s until about 2010.” The rise in prescription painkillers introduced opiate use to new segments of the population, namely white, affluent people. This led state, local, and federal law enforcement to launch a nationwide crackdown, shutting down “pill mills,” where the drugs were sold illegally, and persecuting doctors who overprescribed the drugs.

But instead of stopping the problem, the crackdown simply drove many people who were already dependent on opiates to switch to heroin. “From a public-health perspective, things are worse now,” said Grant Smith, the deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “Before people were misusing pharmaceutical drugs. Now they’ve shifted to heroin.”

As a result, the number of heroin users nearly doubled between 2007 and 2013, according to Insight Crime. A recent study by Cicero and his team surveyed the drug use of more than 15,000 patients with opioid dependence entering nonmethadone-maintenance treatment programs between 2008 and 2014. They found that when fewer users reported only taking prescription painkillers, there were more users only taking heroin or combining the substances based on what they could get at the time.

In the study, most people who transitioned from opioid painkillers to heroin said their main reason for using heroin was because it was more accessible and cheaper than the prescription alternative. “It has become a natural progression for many people taking opiates to move to heroin over a period of time,” said Cicero.

Meanwhile, heroin overdoses and fatalities have continued to climb sharply over the past decade. During a speech in October, President Obama addressed the heroin crisis and announced various steps to combat the problem, like increasing access to treatment and expanding training for doctors who prescribe prescription painkillers. But Dr. Cicero doesn’t seem hopeful that the White House’s intervention will make much of a difference. “At some point, heroin use will peak and then start to drop off, but for the foreseeable future, heroin is going to be a big problem,” he said.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/ @alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.

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