The silent take-over of the opioid

With Canada set to become the first major country in the world to legalize marijuana for recreational use, many around the world continue to debate the consequences. While liberals herald such a move as a long overdue change, conservatives see the legalization of the “devil’s lettuce” as a move that will usher in the end of civilization as we know it. While both sides continue to vigorously argue over the status of marijuana, another drug crisis, blind to race, sex, religion, and political ideology, has been silently growing and claiming thousands of lives. While we all picture the typical drug-dealer to be the stereotypical scruffy looking, long trenchcoat-wearing man who lurks around schools, the creators of today’s prescription painkiller epidemic are clean cut professionals working in hospitals and clinics around the world. That’s right, the very doctors who we put our full trust into are the ones who have created the prescription painkiller. While doctors have good intensions, a perfect storm consisting of public outcry, along with government and pharmaceutical company pressures locked and loaded the barrels, forcing doctors to pull the trigger and over-prescribe opioid pain killers.

That’s right the very doctors who we put our full trust in are the ones that have created the prescription painkiller. While doctors have good intentions, a perfect storm of public outcry and government and pharmaceutical company pressures locked and loaded the barrels, forcing doctors to pull the trigger and over-prescribe opioid pain killers.

With the breakneck pace of modern technology advancement, we now expect a pharmaceutical treatment for all of our maladies. Ever since the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, we seek to treat everything with a magical pill. With the transformation of medical care becoming more patient-oriented and the comfort of the patient standing above all else, physicians were urged to treat the pain experienced by patients as a medical condition.

In fact, with 100 million Americans suffering from chronic pain, the cry for help became much louder. In 1996, with the creation of Oxycontin, physicians around the world found their silver bullet. With the assurance of the safety of this drug by the pharmaceutical company producing it, doctors could answer the cries of patients and law-makers eager to make their constituents happy. By 2011, the number of prescription pain killers had risen to 219 million from their 1991 levels of 76 million, enough to give every single adult in the United States a prescription .

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As physicians became trigger-happy and began to over prescribe opioid pain killers, the patients they hoped to treat became sicker. This time, it was from the very drugs that were being given to them by the doctors they trusted. By the mid-2000s, the cat was out of the bag and it was uncovered that Purdue Pharma, the creator of Oxycontin, had lied about the tolerance and addictive abilities of its drugs, resulting in a multimillion dollar settlement. However, the damage was done and doctors had to contend with the fact that between 26.4 million and 36 million individuals abuse opioid pain killers world-wide.

The United States alone is home to 2.1 million addicts, with The New York Times reporting that 33,000 people have died because of this epidemic, a possible gross underestimation. The underestimate is due to the fact that many opioid pain killer abusers may have a comorbid disorder, such as pneumonia; at the time of death, physicians may record the patient’s other disorder and disregard the role of drug abuse.

When politicians tried to fight this epidemic by restricting the sale of opioids, it had unintended consequences. Soon, abusers found themselves without a steady supplier, and started turning to traditional drug dealers. While they were able to continue to feed their addiction, the drug dealers could not provide the same prescription drugs that the patients are normally accustomed to. As a result, patients once addicted to prescription pain killers turn heroin, which is much cheaper, more readily available, and worst of all, incredibly more potent.

While this situation may harken back to the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, this one is profoundly different in one significant way: race. While crack, a cheap, alternative form of cocaine, had a stranglehold on the black communities, the opioid pain killer epidemic is overwhelmingly a problem for the Caucasian community. One key reason that such a disparity exists is due to the fact that physicians, the source of the prescriptions, are more reluctant to prescribe opioid pain killers to African-Americans patients than Caucasian patients. Studies show that such a disparity in prescriptions is a result of a persistent belief among some physicians that minorities either feel less pain than their white counterparts or may be more likely to abuse or sell drugs. Individuals affected by this epidemic have also been fortunate enough to be dealt with according to drugs laws which have been

Individuals affected by this epidemic have also been fortunate enough to be dealt with according to drugs laws, which have been drawn back since the great recession in the United States . While sufferers of the crack cocaine epidemic were met with jail time, today, opioid drug abusers are treated much better under the law. However, it is not only the law that is much kinder, but also the lawmakers. It’s still true that the vast majority in all levels of government are white, just as are the majority of opioid addicts. Today, lawmakers talk about guiding people back onto the right path and rehabilitating people who are full of potential. The stories of those close to them and the group that is most salient to them has shaped the views of these figures of authority and made them more compassionate. This is seen when Governor Chris Christie talks about his law school friend whose addiction started from a prescription for back pain, or when President Trump passionately speaks about alcohol addiction, which his brother succumbed to.

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Whereas doctors once felt that they had a full arsenal of options to choose from to combat their problems, they now find themselves between a very big rock and a really hard place. Patients are still seeking relief from their pain, but doctors risk causing them more harm than good with their current arsenal. However, in these times of uncertainty, an unlikely hero in the smoke arises: marijuana.

For years, the public has been taught that it is dangerous to go near the “devil’s lettuce,” and that a single “blunt” is enough to tear the very fabric of our lives apart. In a turn of events that are making marijuana advocates jump for joy, 56% of the public in the United States favour the legalization of marijuana compared to 16% in the 1960s , with several states having already legalized it and Canada set do so in 2018. Marijuana has been known for its relaxant effects, which arise from the binding of THC to our cannabinoid receptors all throughout the body and brain. However, marijuana has also been noted to relieve pain in users. A recent study found that American states that legalized the use of marijuana for medical or recreational use had significantly fewer opioid painkiller abusers. While this is a step in the right direction, much more research is required to confirm its effects.

While people may have certain stereotypes of who drug abusers are and where they live, this epidemic has completely changed those expectations. We now see that drug epidemics do not see colour, race, and religion, and the health of our society depends on the health of the individuals in our community. The best treatment is prevention, and education is key to this. Increasing awareness of the potential of the abuse of such drugs is crucial in combatting this epidemic, as well as raising awareness in the medical community and changing physician prescription behaviors and patient expectations for a prescription with each visit. With continued research into knew pain relief medication and the embrace of unconventional substances, such as marijuana, relief at the end of the tunnel is quite visible.

By Hussein El Khechen 

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.