The Pnyx: Opioid epidemic

Joshua Schuetz
Staff Writer

Congress recently passed a bill allocating funds for drug addiction treatments in the wake of the worst addiction crisis in American history.

The opioid epidemic has, since the late 90s, killed around 700,000 Americans, but that’s likely an underestimate. It’s not getting better, either: in 2017, over 72,000 people died of drug overdoses. 

It’s worth asking, why such high numbers? And will the new bill do much good?

The short answer: Because of the increase in fentanyl use, and no, probably not. 

Our popular image of an opioid epidemic victim is a middle-aged, blue collar worker who was injured on the job, was prescribed opioids by a physician, and was unable to stop using them after treatment ended. 

The problem is that this image is misleading. Middle-aged and elderly people are more likely to become addicted to prescription painkillers, which has been the focus of most media attention and policy thus far, but opioid deaths are being driven by the illicit use of heroin and fentanyl.

Why? Heroin is cheaper, fentanyl cheaper still. Young people are less likely to be able to get opioids through legal means. Heroin and fentanyl are also much stronger than garden-variety painkillers.

Statistics bear this out. The CDC reported 72,287 deaths from opioid overdoses in the US in 2017. Of those, 29,418 were from fentanyl, versus 15,950 and 14,951 from heroin and prescription painkillers, respectively.

But most policies have to do with restricting the supply of opioid painkillers. This isn’t a bad thing, but it won’t do much good for those addicted to heroin or fentanyl. It might backfire, by leading those taken off of prescription drugs (including chronic pain patients) to try more dangerous drugs. 

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