Katherine is a retired professional living in Brunswick County, NC, and by all rights should be enjoying the retirement she worked hard to achieve. Instead, she is living a parent’s worst nightmare.
It’s been more than a decade since Katherine (not her real name) has had even one day free from fear, depression and guilt. Katherine is a victim of the Opioid Epidemic, the worst drug crisis in American history. She is not a player in this scourge but rather an innocent bystander. Her fear is for that phone call, the one that informs her that her beautiful daughter, Maggie (not her real name), the little girl smiling in all those family photos, the kid who used to stay up way past her bedtime because she loved to read, has finally succumbed to the addiction that has plagued her since she was a teenager.
Katherine gets depressed every time friends and neighbors talk about the happy lives and accomplishments of their children. For her daughter Maggie, now in her thirties, it’s been a life in and out of rehab. A life of forged family checks, car accidents and license revocation. A life of felony charges and courtroom appearances. Like any parent in Katherine’s situation, she feels intense guilt. Was there something she could have done – anything! – to prevent this from ever happening?
It’s not just about people like Maggie, who fell in with the wrong crowd as a teen. Thanks to the flooding of the prescription opioid market by pharmaceutical companies and over-prescribing by doctors, many addicts began their journey with a legitimate prescription for pain mitigation. Once hooked, and no longer in possession of a legal option, they were forced onto the black market where the high cost of those medications moved them to a cheaper alternative – heroin.
Drug overdoses in 2016 rose to 64,000 from 52,000 the previous year, thanks in part to the growing use of Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid often produced illegally in underground labs. Fentanyl has become an inexpensive way for drug dealers to cut heroin, often unbeknownst to their customers. It is so powerful that a quantity the size of twelve grains of salt is enough to end a life. In that concentration, the risk to the user of street drugs is so enormous that it’s no longer a question of whether they will overdose, but rather when. Today’s opioid epidemic is no longer a crisis – it’s an emergency. More Americans die from overdoses in one year than were killed in the entire Viet Nam war. It’s death toll exceeds that of traffic fatalities and gun violence combined. It’s a 911 attack every three weeks.
Faced with this emergency, what can be done?
First, let’s stop thinking of addicts as criminals and bad people who are solely responsible for their addiction. They are parents and children, the very poor and Wall Street tycoons. Drug dependency is not a crime, it’s a disease and must be treated as such. Those addicted quickly stop getting a high from the drugs they are taking and instead need them just to avoid getting sick with the symptoms of withdrawal. You’d be hard pressed to find addicts who aren’t disgusted with the predicament they find themselves in.
Second, let’s get serious about opioids. North Carolina ranks right in the middle among states for opioid deaths. However, Brunswick County has one of the highest rates of abuse in the state and the nation. As an example of the lack of urgency in the political arena, Brunswick County commissioners waited until December 2017 to declare the opioid problem “a public nuisance”. A nuisance is a flat tire. A nuisance is a mosquito buzzing around your head at night. Opioid abuse in Brunswick County is a health emergency. When we moved from thinking of HIV/Aids as “not my problem” to treating it like the human tragedy it was, progress was swift and today deaths from Aids are close to zero.
Third, there are treatments that work. For instance, a drug called Buprenorphine has been used successfully to ween addicts off opioids. Although it’s an opioid itself, the body reacts differently to it and it can bring about a gradual and effective end to addiction. Since many dependencies were caused by legal prescriptions intended to mitigate pain from an accident or an illness, why not be proactive and require every opioid prescription running long enough to cause dependence to be followed up with a prescription for Buprenorphine?
Finally, if ever there was a problem that could be solved by throwing money at it, this is it. Right now, if an addict is lucky enough to get into a treatment program at all, the odds are that he or she will be released too soon and end up back on drugs within a matter of days. We need more money for facilities. More money to train people to administer treatment. More money for life-saving drugs like Naproxen and Buprenorphine. More money to pay for longer treatment periods. Yet with deaths rising by double digit percentages annually, the federal government will spend a total of only $4.6 billion this year to combat the opioid epidemic. Compare that to estimates that the U.S. has been spending at least $100 billion a year on counter-terrorism since 911. Yet, since 911, there have been less than 100 American deaths on our soil attributed to terrorism. Compare that to 175 deaths from opioids every single day.
It’s time that all of us recognize that the opioid emergency is now the single biggest threat to American lives. It needs to end. We must insist that the politicians who represent us consider opioid addiction a top priority.
We conquered HIV/Aids. We can do this!