These days, you will seldom hear the word ‘opioid’ without ‘epidemic’ attached; but it was not always so. At one time, opioids were a ‘magic’ cure for a person’s ills; that is until it became obvious that they caused more harm than good. While it is difficult to pin down an exact figure, it is likely that there were between 59,000 and 65,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2016.
In 2015, there were over 52,000; over 33,000 of which involved an opioid. Physicians across the United States are guilty of handing out these potentially deadly drugs like candy. By 2012, the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed by doctors had reached an incredible 282 million! Today, we know the dangers of opioids, but this wasn’t always the case.
What Are Opioids?
In simple terms, opioids are a class of drugs that relieve pain by acting on the nervous system. Well-known opioids include OxyContin, Vicodin, fentanyl, and heroin! These drugs are chemically related and interact with your body and brain’s opioid receptors on the nerve cells.
They are apparently safe when used sparingly and in low doses, but since they offer a sense of euphoria in addition to pain relief, they quickly become addictive. Regular use routinely leads to dependence and misuse can lead to death. This is because your brain gets used to the feeling which means you must take an increased dosage to get the same effect as before.
A Brief History of Opioids
Opioid comes from the word opium as some of these drugs are naturally derived from the opium poppy plant. Well-known drugs such as oxycodone are semi-synthetic opioids which are created in labs using a combination of real and synthetic ingredients.
The first known opium reference came from approximately 3,400 BC when it was grown in lower Mesopotamia. The Sumerians called the poppy the ‘Joy Plant’ and its use was passed on to the Assyrians and the Egyptians. Sometime in the 5th or 4th Century BC, Hippocrates wrote about the benefits of opium as a means of treating certain diseases. It was introduced to India by Alexander the Great and made its way to China where it was widely used for medicinal purposes in the 3rd Century AD.
A Swiss-German alchemist named Paracelsus introduced opium pills to Europeans in 1527. The famous Sydenham’s Laudanum was released in 1680 and had opium as one of its main ingredients. Morphine was isolated from opium in 1806 and became a crucial painkilling treatment in the United States during the 19th century. Some of the earliest ‘addicts’ were Civil War veterans who used morphine as a battlefield anesthetic.
The Rise of Opioids
In some ways, we can blame Bayer Pharmaceuticals for the growth of the opioid monster. The company introduced heroin, derived from opium, as a ‘wonder drug’ in 1898. Believe it or not, heroin was even used as a cough suppressant in the early 20th century! It didn’t take long for the U.S. Government to respond. The 1909 Opium Exclusion Act banned opium importation for smoking. The 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act put a tax on anyone creating, importing or selling any opium derivative.
Bayer stopped mass producing heroin in 1916, and by the 1920s, most doctors stopped prescribing opioids as medicine. Heroin was banned in the United States in 1924. However, like the Civil War, World War II caused a new wave of addicts as doctors used everything at their disposal to treat injured soldiers.
Nerve block clinics were opened in the 1950s and 1960s to treat pain without surgery. Oxycodone was approved by the FDA in 1950 and led to a wave of opioid abuse from the early 1960s that continues to this day. It seemed as if the creation of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which divided drugs into different categories or ‘schedules,’ would help curb the rise of opioids. While Vicodin and Percocet were available in the 1970s, most physicians were aware of the dangers of opioids and refused to prescribe them. All it took was an 11 line letter to change history and cause hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Dollars > Human Lives
The aforementioned letter was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980. It was not a study, but an analysis of almost 12,000 patients who used narcotics to treat pain. Doctor Hershel Jick and Jane Porter wrote that addiction was rare in patients with no history of addiction. In 1986, Doctor Russell Portenoy looked at the use of opioids in patients with non-cancer pain. Again, he said opioid maintenance therapy was safe; he was wrong.
Alas, Big Pharma companies routinely used these ‘studies’ as irrefutable proof that opioids were not harmful. It is somewhat ironic that in a decade characterized by the War on Drugs, drug addiction began its rise to the frightening levels we see today. Opioids such as fentanyl, morphine, and hydromorphone became popular in the 1990s as these painkillers were prescribed for practically every form of pain.
OxyContin was introduced in 1995 and aggressively marketed from the outset. By 1999, up to 4 million people were using opioids for non-medical reasons. Matters were made worse when pain was introduced as the ‘fifth vital sign’ which led to further increases in opioid prescriptions. By 2002, over 6 million Americans were misusing opioids, but nothing was done as more people met their maker due to their dependence on these killer drugs.
The Federal Government finally acted in 2007 when it brought criminal charges against Purdue Pharma, the creators of OxyContin, for misleading advertising. The company pled guilty and paid over $634 million in criminal and civil fines. It is only in the last few years that the public has been made aware of the dangers of opioids but by now, there are over 90 opioid related deaths in America every single day.
At the time of writing, 48 states have implemented prescription drug monitoring programs but up to 26% of people who use opioids as a painkilling drug are addicted. On May 20, 2015, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) arrested around 280 people as part of Operation Pilluted. The plan was devised as a means of discovering the health care providers who prescribed the greatest number of opioids to patients.
Final Thoughts on the Opioids Crisis
On October 26, 2017, President Trump declared a national public health emergency and said that the current generation could be the one to end the crisis. However, the power of Big Pharma in the United States means that opioids will continue to sell in enormous quantities until these companies can find something else to peddle.
It seems as if the nation reached peak opioid usage in around 2011 when sales on opioid drugs totaled $8.4 billion. Even today, Big Pharma shirks responsibility for enhancing the crisis and continues to claim that opioids are safe to use in small quantities despite all evidence to the contrary. At the time of writing, it is still relatively easy to get your hands on opioids despite the fact they cause almost 100 deaths a day.
Marijuana, which is a Schedule I drug, has yet to cause a single death from an overdose. According to Judge Francis Young, you would need to consume around 15,000 pounds of marijuana in 15 minutes to produce a fatal response. Makes you think, doesn’t it?