By Liz Greene
In one way or another, almost everyone in America has been touched by the ongoing heroin epidemic. According to the CDC, fatal heroin overdoses have more than quadrupled since 2010. Not only is it cheaper and more potent than ever, it’s reaching new communities — the greatest increases have taken place in groups with historically lower rates of heroin use, including women, people with private insurance, and those with higher incomes. In fact, heroin use has doubled among women over a decade. What’s behind these horrifying statistics — and more importantly, behind the deaths of so many Americans?
Prescription for Disaster
The U.S. isn’t just struggling with a heroin epidemic — we’re also in the midst of an opioid addiction epidemic. From coast to coast, Americans have fallen victim to opioid addiction and are dying in record numbers. Since the late 90s, doctors — who were perhaps poorly trained in pain management — have been handing out prescriptions for highly addictive painkillers as if they were candy. This led to widespread casual use of opioids, which in turn, gave rise to rampant dependency and a wave of fatal overdoses.
These drugs are particularly addictive, as tolerance and physiological dependence are developed very quickly. As their bodies become accustomed to the effects of the drugs, they have to take more to achieve the same effect. The cycle continues — and depending on how long the drugs are used — can eventually lead to overdose.
Prescription painkillers are often a gateway to heroin use. Approximately three out of four new heroin users started with opiate abuse. They switch to heroin because it’s cheaper to obtain than prescription opiates; but it’s also far deadlier. Not only is heroin considerably more potent today than ever before, it’s also often cut it with lethal drugs, such as Fentanyl, an opiate that can be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin itself.
Why Are Women So Affected?
Since women tend to be more susceptible to chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, they are prescribed opiates in higher doses — and take them for much longer — than men. As such, deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses among women have increased more than 400% since 1999, compared to 265% among men. What’s more, for every woman who dies of a prescription painkiller overdose, 30 end up in the ER for painkiller misuse or abuse.
Though the numbers are staggering, not all women from every demographic are being as severely impacted by opioid and heroin abuse. White women are far more likely to abuse prescription opiates. Furthermore, white women living in rural areas, between the ages of 45 and 49, are more likely to die from a drug overdose than suicide. Since 80% of rural communities lack the access to qualified health professionals, there may be a cultural element that explains the geographical concentration of the epidemic.
What Can Be Done?
In 2015 alone, 33,091 people died from a drug overdose involving opioid prescriptions or heroin. Despite this staggering toll, American citizens have failed to protest, march, or call their representatives and demand expanded treatment. The victims of this horrible epidemic are invisible at best — at worst, they’re shamed, casualties of the stigma surrounding drug abuse.
The first step in fighting the heroin epidemic is to limit the availability and use of opioids. However, this is easier said than done as there are real health benefits to opioids. Since not all patients become addicts, reducing access to opioids may leave many in needless pain. The hard part is finding the balance between saving lives and preserving the quality of life for those who suffer chronic pain.
With federal health officials just beginning to recognize the extent of the crisis, state run drug monitoring programs have emerged to supervise the doctors prescribing drugs and the patients abusing them. However, this simply isn’t enough — we need all levels of government to devote equal attention and resources.
One of the most important things we can do is to make sure all people have access to drug rehabilitation and treatment. We also need to promote prison reform — 46.4% of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug related charges. Instead of locking them up, we should be helping non-violent drug offenders by giving them access to treatment (inpatient or outpatient), clinical assessment, detoxification, counseling, and aftercare.
Though efforts to curb the epidemic have been put in motion, there’s also been an upsurge in availability of heroin. Experts are unsure whether an increase in supply or an increase in demand is to blame — either way, people are choosing heroin for its low price and convenience. While there’s a good chance we can eventually solve this problem, it’s going to take a lot of legwork, a lot of reform, and all of society working together to stop furthering the stigmas that only prove to make matters worse.
We can’t afford another national disaster like the Reagan-era “War on Drugs” from which the country is still recovering, in terms of the violence and horrendous policies which stemmed from the failed initiative. It did nothing to address addiction, it only increased our incarceration rates. We can see how the Philippines current war on drugs, initiated by Trump-esque president Rodrigo Duterte is becoming known as a reign of terror due to is targeted killing of thousands of drug uses, rather than implementing effective policies that stop drug trafficking. America must not go back, for the sake of those being affected by the heroin and opioid epidemic whose lives are at stake.
We have our work cut out for us.
Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.