Last updated: November 27, 2023
It’s well known that in the United States we are currently undergoing an epidemic of unprecedented proportions when it comes opioid abuse. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have even attributed the a major drop in life expectancy for Americans in large part to the opioid crisis, from 78.9 to 78.8. President Donald Trump even declared the opioid epidemic a national public health crisis.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse examined data over the last 20 years and found a startling switch in the manner in which drug abuse is developing in Americans. They found that, of people entering treatment for opiate addiction in the 1960s, more than 80 percent started with heroin. But when examining those who began abusing any form of opiate in the 2000s, 75 percent reported that their first opioid was a prescription drug.
Where do opiates come from?
Opiates have been around for centuries. In fact, archaeologists have found opium pipes dating back to the Sumerians, and historians believe that opium poppy seeds have been used for recreational and medicinal purpose since prehistoric times. As the global trade market grew during the 1500’s and onward, the trading of opium became a major source of contention and even lead to war between China and England when China attempted to halt the influx of the drug into their country.
Opium is derived from the opium poppy, but opiates can also be synthetically created in the lab to mimic the effects of the original drug; euphoria, numbness, slowed breathing etc… The most common forms of opiates are:
Types of opiates:
These drugs can be taken in multiple ways: injection, smoking, snorting and swallowing. They are also widely available in pill form, powder, and liquid.
Why are opiates so dangerous?
Currently in the United States, more than 115 people die everyday from overdose on opioids. We also know that 20-30 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids will wind up abusing them. This combination of addictive and deadly properties is what makes opiates so lethal.
The danger in opiates lies in the many physical effects it takes on the body, the most dangerous being the suppression of breathing that occurs. If the body is exposed to high enough levels of opiate, it can shut down the nervous system and become fatal within minutes of injecting.
Opiates are also dangerous because they instill intense cravings, meaning addicts will often times turn to whatever means in order to acquire them. This could begin with putting oneself in financial jeopardy by spending too much money on drugs. It could also lead to selling oneself for sex and increasing the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. There is also the allure of purchasing lower and lower quality opiates.
Buying opiates from the street level instead of being prescribed by a doctor is increases the danger tenfold, because there is no way to ascertain the quality or composition of the drug. For example, in Tucson, Arizona in 2017, musician Lil Peep purchased the benzo Xanax from a street dealer and died from a nervous system shut down because the drug was laced with the extremely potent opiate Fentanyl.
Another danger is that tolerance to the drug develops rather quickly, and the side effects of withdrawal are fairly strong. Even just taking the drug for a few weeks can cause users to develop a significant dependence and result in withdrawal symptoms such as intense anxiety, sweating, body pains, diarrhea and more.
Addiction researchers believe that after a short period of abuse, it is usually the fear of withdrawal symptoms, and not the physical pleasure of the drug, that keeps addicts tethered to their chemical dependency. For the best chance of successfully withdrawing from an opioid dependency, it is strongly recommended that one seeks the help of a certified rehab center.
Why are opiates prescribed?
Opium has been widely used throughout the United States, and opiates were a major ingredient in many medicines made available by the FDA through the 19th century. However, as these drugs became more widely dispersed, gradually the FDA developed tighter regulations around the synthesis and administration of these drugs. Today, opiates are prescribed for a wide majority of pain relief cases. Whether it be chronic or acute, the one thing opiates are wildly successful at is momentarily killing pain in the body.
Unfortunately, opiates are the form of drug now abused higher than any other besides alcohol and marijuana. And nearly 90 percent of opiate abusers are using an opiate form that was originally intended for medical use. Opiates have become so widely distributed thanks in part to an unscrupulous pharmaceutical industry that originally touted the drug as “non-addictive” and only recently began enforcing stricter guidelines about the safe administration of these drugs.
However, a rising acceptance in using medication to treat illness along with an increase in pharmaceutical companies marketing new and existing opiates has lead to a year over year increase in the total number of opiate prescriptions given out. This all despite the warnings, such as the fact that the number of overdose deaths from opioid abuse more than tripled from 1990 to 2010, and continues to rise.
Treating opioid addiction
Fortunately, researchers have made a lot of headway into finding and funding the most effective forms of treatment for opioid addiction. Due to the highly addictive properties of the medication, many researchers recommend pairing medications that contain opiate antagonists with structured therapy and support groups that can help guide recovering addicts successfully to sobriety.
Two of the most common medications to treat opioid withdrawal include Methadone and Suboxone. These medications must be administered by clinical professionals. Treatment typically begins with the induction phase, where during the early stages of withdrawal, the medication is safely administered to reduce the side effects. The next phase involves stabilization, and begins when the addict is either no longer using opiate drugs, or has reduced consumption to a significantly lower amount. Here the doctor monitors the patient’s condition and adjusts the dosage and administration of Suboxone to match the needs of the individual being treated. The final phase involves gradually tapering off the dosage amount of the medication over a period of time, until it is no longer needed.
All throughout this, if the patient is undergoing treatment in an inpatient rehab center, the patient will be surrounded by supportive staff and peers. By remaining in this environment, the recovering addict reduces chances of relapsing, lessens the negative side effects of withdrawal, and has a stronger chance of achieving sobriety.