A couple of newspaper stories recently caught my attention. The Arizona Republic reported that, in 2016, Mojave County had more opioid prescriptions than people – 127.5 prescriptions for every 100 residents. In another story, The Arizona Republic reported that four Mojave County doctors prescribed 6 million opioid pills in a single year!
Yet another newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, reported that, over a two-year period, out-of-state drug companies shipped 9 million hydrocodone pills to one pharmacy in Mingo County, West Virginia – a county with a population of about 33,000 people. The newspaper also found that, over a six-year period, drug wholesalers shipped 780 million painkillers to West Virginia pharmacies – more than 400 for every man, woman and child in the state. Further, a congressional committee discovered that, over a decade, out-of-state drug companies shipped 20.8 million prescription painkillers to a West Virginia town with a population of just 2,900 people.
That may explain why the top four counties in the US for prescription opioid drug overdose deaths are all in West Virginia. Yet the problem isn’t limited to West Virginia and Arizona.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported, “In 2016, the five states with the highest rates of death due to drug overdose were West Virginia (52.0 per 100,000), Ohio (39.1 per 100,000), New Hampshire (39.0 per 100,000), Pennsylvania (37.9 per 100,000) and (Kentucky (33.5 per 100,000). Significant increases in drug overdose death rates from 2015 to 2016 were seen in the Northeast, Midwest and South Census Regions. States with statistically significant increases in drug overdose death rates included Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.”
According to the CDC, “Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2016 than 1999, and sales of these prescription drugs have quadrupled. From 1999 to 2016, more than 200,000 people have died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids.” Overdoses from prescription opioids killed more than 50,000 Americans in 2015 – more than car accidents.
To put that into perspective, Americans seem more fearful of seeing a loved one murdered than of seeing a loved one die from opioid overdose. Yet there were only 15,000 homicides in the US in 2015 – a third as many died from violence as from opioids. And remember the Ebola panic of 2014? Only two Americans actually died of the disease.
A more interesting comparison is to the crack cocaine crisis of the late 1980s. At its height, there were 7,000 deaths a year in the US (14 percent as many as we see from prescription opioids today). In response, we rounded up the dealers and users resulting in dramatic increases of incarceration, particularly among black Americans. But the opioid epidemic mostly involves white people. And the prescription opioid cartel involves doctors, pharmacists, drug wholesalers and large pharmaceutical corporations. So there has been little response from law enforcement.
Only when the prescriptions are stolen or the abusers have turned to illegal drugs, has law enforcement taken action. And, in reality, law enforcement is not the answer. The decades-long War on Drugs has failed. In part, that’s because of our society’s attitude toward drug abusers: that they’re losers incapable of dealing with reality; that they deserve to be punished.
In reality, punishment, fear and loathing are never the answers for drug abuse. Instead, we should be treating abusers as victims. We should be offering them help and non-addictive alternatives to opioid painkillers. We should be offering physicians better education in treating pain. And we should be regulating the distribution of prescription painkillers.
Instead, the Trump Department of Justice has threatened a new crackdown on marijuana, one of the few substances known to offer pain relief without addiction. And despite the fact that the number of known deaths from overdoses of weed is zero!