The Opioid Crisis began in the 1990’s and has continued to ravage the United States ever since. Currently, more than 115 Americans die each day from overdosing on opioids (Kurland). That’s more than 12 deaths every minute. The first wave of the the opioid crisis caught the attention of Americans when opioid related deaths skyrocketed in the late 1990’s. Many of these deaths can be attributed to the major increase in prescription rates for opioid painkillers. Doctors and surgeons around the country began increasing prescription rates due reassurance received from pharmaceutical companies that the risk of addiction from opioids was very low. Throughout the 90’s, pharmaceutical companies also advocated that opioids should be used for non-cancer pain, despite the lack of data on the problems that this could create. “By 1999, 86% of patients using opioids were using them for non-cancer pain” (Liu, History of the Opioid Epidemic). In 2001, Purdue Pharma spent $200 million to market OxyCotin (an extended-release opioid), resulting in a massive prescribing increase from roughly 600,000 to over 6.2 million annual prescriptions (Weiner). Due to the marketing and acceptance of opioids for non-cancer use, pharmaceutical companies began greatly increasing the amount of opioids that they produce. According to Scott Weiner, “Distribution of opioids through the pharmaceutical supply chain increased from 96 morphine milligram equivalents per person in 1997 to 700 morphine milligram equivalents in 2007, an increase of more than 600%.”
This massive increase in opioid production is tearing apart many towns across the United States. One place this can be see is in the town of Williamson, West Virginia, a small coal mining town with a population of about 3,000. “According to an Investigation by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, from the years 2008 to 2015 drug wholesalers provided two pharmacies, only four blocks apart, with more than 20.8 million prescription painkillers” (Gutierrez). That’s more than 6500 painkillers per person! The two pharmacies in Williamson were Tug Valley Pharmacy and the Hurley Drug Company, each taking in more than 10 million pills. How could these companies possibly receive this volume of pills? Did the drug wholesalers not feel as what they are doing is unethical? Did shipping this many pills to so little people raise ANY flags to the DEA? These are questions that we all want the answers to after learning the number of pills that were received in Williamson. In a town that had already struggled with addiction, it’s as if these wholesalers are putting salt on an open wound. These selfish acts by the drug wholesalers pushed West Virginia to have the “highest fatal drug overdose rate with 52 per 100,000 people in 2016, far outpacing Ohio, which had the next highest at 39.1 fatalities” (Gutierrez). There’s no doubt that these numbers are outrageous, and “If you’re trying to figure out how to get rid of the epidemic, trying to figure out how to resolve the problem, start with the prescription” (qtd, Gutierrez).
When opioid production is increasing at such an alarming rate, far more Americans that just the individuals who are prescribed are greatly affected. Many of the opioids prescribed by doctors seemingly find their way into the hands of others through drug diversion. Drug diversion is the concept involving the transfer of any legally prescribed controlled substance from the individual for whom it was prescribed to another person for any illicit use. As more and more opioids are being produced and prescribed, the amount of drug diversion that occurs increases as well, resulting in an even wider scale of substance abuse. By 2015, an estimated 2 million people in the United States had a substance abuse disorder linked to prescription opioid painkillers (Kurland). Addiction to opioid painkillers poses a serious risk of overdosing. In 2016 alone, there were 19,354 overdose deaths involving opioid painkillers (National Institute on Drug Abuse). The graph below, provided from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, shows how opioid overdoses have increased drastically from 2002-2016 and how they will continue to harm our country if the crisis isn’t contained soon.
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