Opioid Epidemic In The USA

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The image of an opiate addict has shifted from a lone junkie on the streets with a needle in their arm to a soccer mom, businessman or athlete. Thanks to a massive push of opioid medications by pharmaceutical companies, people from all walks of life have fallen victim to opioid addiction. Pharmaceutical companies pushed their drugs, claiming that they did not have any addictive properties and encouraged doctors to overprescribe. With the number of people becoming addicted to prescription opioids, many of them turn to the use of illegal drugs when they can no longer afford to maintain their habits. This has led to the resurgence of heroin in communities across the United States. The overdoses related to opioid addiction have been on a steady rise throughout the years. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 46,802 Americans died of an opioid overdose, about 128 people a day in 2018 (Opioid Overdose Crisis, 2020). Many individuals also turn to crime to support a habit. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that the misuse of prescription opioid costs the United States approximately $78.5 billion a year in healthcare, addiction treatment and criminal justice (Opioid Overdose Crisis, 2020). Today one of our country’s biggest struggles is how to address and treat opioid addiction effectively. In the past twenty years, in response to pharmaceutical companies push of opioid painkillers, heroin has become a nation-wide epidemic. The crime that comes along with the use of illegal and prescription drug abuse has put great strain on the criminal justice system.

The opioid crisis in the United States began with a new approach to pain and pain management. According to the 2017 article “The Opioid Epidemic” by Kesselheim, Sinha and Sarpatwari, the epidemic began 1996 when pain became known are the fifth vital sign (p. 465). As a result of this new view on pain, in 1999, standards for pain management were created, by The Joint Commissions on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, that facilities would need to comply with to receive certification (Kesslheim, Sihna and Sarpatwari, 2017, p. 465). These new guidelines put pressure on medical doctors to make sure all guidelines were met, and that pain was managed. The opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to profit off opioid medications had begun. One pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, was extremely successful in its attempt to capitalize on the use of prescription opioid, Oxycontin, for pain management by getting the FDA to back up their claims that it was non-addictive (Kesslheim, Sihna and Sarpatwari, 2017, p. 465). With the FDA stating that Oxycontin was non-addictive, the main concern about openly prescribing opioids was diminished and doctors began to overprescribe. With Americans becoming addicted to opioids at an increasing rate, not all were able to maintain the habit, so some turned to more affordable substances, like heroin.

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Heroin has become resurged in society, as a cheaper solution for opioid addiction and it has become a crisis among all demographics. A 2017 article by Rebecca L. Haffajee, and Michelle M. Mello claims that even though most opioid overdoses are a result of heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, most opioid addiction begin with abuse of prescribed medications. It is reported that four out of five heroin users started by using prescribed pain medications and 94% of those claim they did so to save money. Besides creating a spike in the use of illegal opioids, abuse of prescription opioids has increased the use of illegal stimulants such as meth and cocaine. With the rate of addiction increasing from the abuse of illegal and prescription pills, the criminal justice system has had to make many changes.

The criminal justice system has been impacted immensely by the abuse of prescription pain pills and the rise of opioid addicted people. Not only have they made changes regarding incarceration and rehabilitation of addicts they have also changed legislation regarding prescribed opioids and sought legal action against some pharmaceutical companies. In 2014, California passed Proposition 47 which made many nonviolent offense misdemeanors instead of felonies, this included certain drug charges. Prop 47 was created in order to free up prison resources for more serious violent criminals and the money this saved went towards addiction and mental health treatment. This was a huge step in dealing with the opioid crisis because not only were the correctional facilities overflowing with drug offenders and by providing help to those addiction. Starting in the early 2000s, most states have set up prescription drug monitoring programs which is an electric database. These databases can help provide information on possible abuse of prescription drugs and providers that may be overprescribing controlled substances.

The opioid epidemic did not happen overnight and it will be along time before it can be contained. With information on the addictive properties of prescription opioids, guidelines and policies have been created to prevent overprescribing and those who are medication seeking.  


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