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Heroin, Fentanyl & The Growing Rates Of Opioid Addiction
Opioids are among the most addictive substances in the United States. And millions of prescriptions are written for patients every year for substances such as fentanyl, heroin, methadone, and oxycodone. In the United States alone, 259 million opioid painkiller prescriptions were written in 2012, with an estimated 2 million people later developing an addiction.
This alarming fact spotlights the underlying problem and complexities with opioids: While they may assist with pain management, patients risk developing an addiction on just their prescribed dose.
"The biggest misconception is that the U.S. is normal in how it handles prescription opioids," said drug policy expert Keith Humphreys in 2017. "So let's compare ourselves to another country. Japan, for example. Older population than us; you would think more aches and pains. Universal access to health care, so more opportunities to prescribe.
"So consider the amount of standard daily doses of opioids consumed in Japan. And then double it. And then double it again. And then double it again. And then double it again. And then double it a fifth time. That would make Japan No. 2 in the world, behind the United States."
This issue emerged in the late 1990s when drugs such as Oxycontin and Percocet were overprescribed because their addictiveness was misunderstood to be mild rather than potent, setting the scene for a rapid increase in the use of prescription and nonprescription opioid drugs, otherwise known as the "opioid epidemic."
Utah native Andi Peterson offers one alarming case study. As reported by Business Insider in 2017, Peterson was advised by her doctor to take Percocet at age 16, a decision that ultimately spiraled into heroin use and a year in prison.
"I didn't think what I was doing was that wrong. ... It was not going to lead to this crazy addiction," said Peterson.
Under a doctor's care and with proper supervision, opioid drugs were designed for safer uses and doses. The risk of overdose generally comes later in a process where dependence leads to mismanaged drug abuse outside of medical treatment. Getting to competent, caring professionals can be an addict's biggest challenge, but for decades MusiCares has helped make these connections through its addiction recovery programs and services.
While the problem of oxycodone-related, prescription drug addiction has grown steadily, CDC data illustrates that its straight-line increase is less urgent than the steeply climbing overdose deaths caused by fentanyl and heroin. Prescription painkiller addiction can potentially be a gateway to increased heroin use, with 80 percent of heroin users having gravitating toward it after using prescription painkillers.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is described by the Drug Enforcement Administration as being 30-50 times more powerful and addictive than heroin. It is most often used with patients who are already taking other opioids to relieve chronic or breakthrough pain, including the pain stemming from cancer. Despite its medical uses, patients are at a greater risk of overdose because of its high potency.
The death of Prince in 2016, which toxicology reports revealed was due to an "exceedingly high" concentration of fentanyl in his body, sparked a broader media interest in the dangers of fentanyl.
"Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more concentrated than morphine," said National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre Director Michael Farrell. "It's very difficult for people to know just how much they are extracting from the patch and injecting. It is already a very powerful opioid and people are injecting it without being able to control how much."
Any blame, shame or stigma attached to addiction to opioids cannot be allowed to get in the way of seeking help. If you, someone you know or anyone you love is struggling with pain management and opioid dosage, please be sure to support them on the road to recovery. Our recent piece about turning the tide on opioid addiction explores the questions individuals should ask themselves to avoid becoming addicted to prescription drugs.
Nearly half of America has a loved one or close friend who has struggled with drug addiction. Awareness of the problem has surged since 2016 from 33 percent to 43 percent, but this is because the truth is alarming.
It remains to be seen whether awareness or government action will be able to slow down this tragic escalation. Educating yourself could save someone's life.