Last updated: August 8, 2022
The term “gateway drug” usually refers to an illegal drug thought of as less harmless which leads to a greater variety and more powerful classes of illegal substance abuse. One of the shocking trends showing itself in statistics today is one that reveals a culprit that is, surprisingly, perfectly legal, though not in the way it’s being abused. Prescription painkillers are leading so many people to heroin addiction that the Atlanta-based CDC, calls it “an epidemic” and not just among men and women, but most age and demographic groups, and all income levels.
Use of heroin more than doubled among young adults (18-25) in the past decade. Emergency room admissions are increasing and heroin-related overdose deaths are on the rise as well. The climbing numbers can be attributed to a number of different drugs as statistics show that nearly every person abusing heroin used at least 1 other drug and most used at least 3. While marijuana users were three times as likely to also try heroin, cocaine was 15 times as likely to be used by someone also using heroin. The most shocking statistic to come out of government research? People addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to abuse heroin as well.
Scientifically, it’s not as surprising when you consider that opioids are lab produced and intended as medical treatment, but chemically are not much different from the illegal forms of of the drug found on the streets. In some cases, of course, the abuse isn’t just from legally obtained drugs, but 45% of people using heroin were also addicted to prescription painkillers.
The spread of heroin and painkiller addiction isn’t firmly tied to socioeconomic factors. It’s increased among the lower class and middle class alike, male and female, young and old. These are the employees that make up the workforces of America’s businesses, which means the epidemic isn’t just a problem for families, but the American economy as well.
The cost to businesses is alarming. Painkillers cost employers billions of dollars in accidents, workplace injuries, claims, and lost productivity. Drug screening can help mitigate some, but never all of that cost and since it so frequently leads to more dangerous drugs, the cost to the employees is significant.
CDC recommendations for states looking to reverse the trend include increasing access to substance abuse treatment services. Some of the medication-assisted treatments are methadone, for the treatment of withdrawal symptoms, and the drug naloxone, approved by the FDA for being able to block opioid receptor sites. In this case, it’s fighting drugs with other drugs, and a pound of cure is being implemented because the ounces of prevention haven’t worked so far.
The CDC made an effort to change that in March of 2016, releasing guidelines discouraging doctors from readily prescribing painkillers. It may be one of ways to make the biggest impact. On the one hand, they work well because they’re so powerful. On the other hand, it makes them an “easy out” for doctors who don’t want patients complaining about pain. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports opioid prescriptions have been reduced by 20 percent since 2012, but that comes after a decade long spike in the number of prescriptions for chronic pain and other ailments. While prescriptions may be down, the percentage of veterans becoming addicted to painkillers rose 55 percent from 2010 to 2015.
Dealing with the epidemic is receiving national attention. The president announced additional actions would be taken to increase access to treatment, strengthen monitoring of prescription medication, safe disposal, and more research. In July of 2016, he requested $1.1 billion dollars in new funding from Congress to meet those ends. While eliminating the use of painkillers for legitimate medical use is not an option, the federal government is noticing that the future of fighting painkillers may become more painful if something isn’t done soon.