Kill the Pain
The "Opiate Epidemic" in the U.S.
According to the CDC: More people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record. The majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involve an opioid. And since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids nearly quadrupled. From 2000 to 2014 nearly half a million people died from drug overdoses. 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
We as humans have a long standing relationship with opiates. They have been in use for thousands of years and provide much needed pain relief for many. You'll discover throughout this collection, the reasons why we find ourselves in this predicament. There is plenty of blame to go around, but you won't see me blaming the drugs. Opiates are not the problem.
So if the drugs themselves aren't the problem, what is?
In 1996 Purdue Pharma launched a form of Oxycodone called Oxycontin with this claim: One dose relieves pain for 12 hours, more than twice as long as generic medications. They also claimed that their product was virtually non-addictive. These lies fueled record sales of Oxycontin and have resulted in $31 billion in revenue for Purdue. In most of the world pain killers as strong and addictive as these are reserved for extreme pain. In the U.S. they have been prescribed freely for minor pain since the birth of Oxycontin. People who were susceptible to addiction became hooked in record numbers.
This addiction to legal pain killers created an environment in which heroin could thrive like it never had before. Drug cartels saw this opportunity and flooded the U.S. with heroin. People who became hooked on the legal stuff often times switched to heroin because it was significantly cheaper and often times easier to obtain.
That's a very brief, simplistic, but accurate description of the obvious factors that brought us to where we are today. The easy thing to do would be to stop right here and point the finger solely at Purdue, the drugs they push, and the heroin market that boomed as a result of their greed. But if we do that, we're really missing the bigger picture and the real reason why there is such a tremendous problem with addiction in the U.S.
The fact is, the vast majority, about 90% of people who use opiates, even for prolonged periods of time, are able to quit on their own. I had always been taught that the hooks in a drug like heroin were so powerful that they could indiscriminately turn anyone into a forever addict. That's simply not true.
One of the most interesting facts that I've seen while researching this edition is that during the Vietnam War, about 20% of American soldiers self-identified as heroin addicts. Of those people who were addicted to heroin, 95% stayed off of heroin after returning home to the U.S.
If the drugs were the problem there's no way that this stat could be true. But the problem wasn't the heroin, it was the fact that these soldiers were disconnected from all that was good in their life and put into a situation of desolation and hopelessness. They were simply managing the emotional, and in some cases physical, pains of war.
It's important to note that many of the soldiers who did have a persistent problem with addiction after the war reported to have unstable or traumatic childhoods.
This is an inconvenient truth. It's much easier to pin a target on a substance or a villainous dealer than it is to take a deep dive into the true causes of addiction; hopeless, disconnected environments and trauma that often occurs while someone is a child. If you've been a follower of this project for any length of time, you can't help but see how the majority of these stories are connected; trauma and hopeless environments.
This doesn't mean that Purdue isn't culpable. Not a single person has spent a day in jail from Purdue for their deceptive practices that have lead to the death and misery of many thousands. To my knowledge, they have only been made to pay $630 million to settle one lawsuit brought by the state of Kentucky.
But the fact is there will always be profit hungry corporations and individuals ready and willing to exploit the most vulnerable among us. And we will never eliminate potentially harmful drugs from society. Prohibition has never worked. The only answer is to help people truly heal and connect to healthy communities.
The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but consumes over 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply.
Want to learn more?
Below are some of the resources that I used to research this edition of The Hidden South Journal.
High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society - by Carl Hart
A pioneering neuroscientist shares his story of growing up in one of Miami's toughest neighborhoods and how it led him to his groundbreaking work in drug addiction.
With a great reporter's narrative skill and the storytelling ability of a novelist, acclaimed journalist Sam Quinones weaves together two classic tales of capitalism run amok whose unintentional collision has been catastrophic.
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs - by Johann Hari
In Chasing the Scream, Hari reveals his discoveries entirely through the stories of people across the world whose lives have been transformed by this war.