They say there is an opiate epidemic. Growing up, all I knew was that an epidemic was bad. A wide-ranging widespread sickness or disease that, if I wasn’t careful, I could catch and end up dead. It was something to fear. Twenty-nine years later, I still have a similar emotional reaction. The Black Plague. Cholera. Smallpox. Bird Flu. Ebola. Opiates. Like the SATS or GMATS – what doesn’t fit? Other than the terror inspired by these names, the most disconcerting aspect of this list is that no one wants to catch an infectious disease. However, to those afflicted with drug addiction, there is nothing that one wouldn’t do for the next high – even willing to make the supreme sacrifice: Death.
To really let this settle in, let’s take a look at the facts. In just one year, Ebola killed an estimated 5,000 people globally according to the World Health Organization. It had the world scrambling: a constant flow of media reports streaming over the internet; real-time humanitarian aid contribution counts; troops, US and otherwise, dedicated to combating the outbreak; forced quarantine; death. Comparatively, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2012 there were an estimated 183,000 drug-related deaths worldwide, with opiate overdose comprising the largest percentage. Do drug related deaths receive media coverage? Yes. Is there public outrage? Sure. Does the U.S. government allocate billions of dollars each year to the war on drugs, to prevention, and to treatment? Absolutely. Then why, since 1999, has the drug overdose death rate more than doubled (http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/overdose/facts.html)? What isn’t working?
Perhaps the issue isn’t a lack of effort, or a lack of funding, but rather a lack of radical thinking.
What would happen if the United States government banned all providers from prescribing painkillers? What if, instead, they encouraged providers to prescribe holistic pain management techniques in combination with prescription drugs with zero abuse level? What if prescription painkillers were relegated to hospital use only and only in the case of emergencies?
What if the United Nations sent a coalition of foreign troops into Afghanistan to eradicate all instances of poppy production? And not just in Afghanistan, but in any country where naturally occurring opiates can be sourced.
What happened if the government banned pharmaceutical companies from contributing to political campaigns? What if we stopped relying on the very same pharmaceutical companies to provide us with risk analysis on the drugs they are creating?
What if opiate users, when arrested for a criminal offense, were mandated to 180-day treatment? What if drug dealers incurred something greater than minor jail time when caught dealing drugs. Biological warfare is considered a weapon of mass destruction. Are drugs not the same? The top ten leading causes of death in the United States include heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, strokes, diabetes, pneumonia, the flu – not one tragedy on that list is being sold by people on the local or global street corner. The final item on that list? Drug-related death.
Are these all great ideas, or even good ideas? Probably not. But a solution to a problem of this nature requires out-of-the-box thinking. This is nothing more than a plea for help…a plea to give the appropriate amount of respect and fear to drugs and alcohol that we would give to any other epidemic. This is a plea to try something different, because what we are doing now just isn’t working.