A Look into the History of Opioids

Opioids are unique and strange compounds. On one hand, they are feared because of the possibility of abuse, addiction and the worst consequences; while on the other hand, they are one of the most effective compounds when used as painkillers.

Although the use of opioids in some form can be traced back to ancient times (the cultivation of opium poppy plants can be traced back to about 5000 years), its widespread use began in late 1800s when morphine addiction was one of the gravest concerns of various societies. Later, ‘heroin’ was marketed at a huge level as an alternative for morphine that was used in treatment of pain and used often for injuries of Civil War veterans. Its usage as a cough suppressant was also promoted.

After the initial clinical trials, heroine was labeled as a ‘wonder drug’, which lead to its commercial production and sale.

Although the negative effects of heroine soon became evident and The Heroine Act was passed by the US government in 1924 to prohibit the manufacture, import and possession of the drug, opioids continued to be used by a large number of people, illegally. Smuggling of heroin in the US reached its peak during the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

As awareness regarding the harmful effects of morphine and heroine spread, scientists tried to find alternatives to treat conditions of chronic pain. In 1937, ‘methadone’ was produced by German scientists in an attempt to find a painkiller that could be used during surgeries and is not as addictive as morphine and heroin. However, it was later claimed by many scientists and healthcare practitioners that methadone had more potential for addiction than the two opioids.

During the later 1900s, illegal production and trade of opium reached to such a high level that Southeast Asia alone was producing as much as 2500 tons per year. At the same time, some other synthetic opiates were introduced to the public as painkillers, with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration. The drugs included Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet.

In late 1990s, as the pharmaceutical companies continued to formulate new opioid medicines and market them as effective for treating conditions of chronic pain, the medical community was hit by a storm. This coupled with some successes achieved in surgical, palliative and cancer procedures and treatments lead to the emergence of a new set of researchers that was comprised of pain specialists. They were of the opinion that opioid analgesics are highly effective for the treatment of chronic pain and can be used for that purpose.

The resulting increase in opioid prescriptions and their easy availability ultimately lead to opioid abuse, dependence, addiction and overdose deaths. The opioid epidemic that the US has been going through lately, does not only include the abuse of illegal drugs, but also the abuse of prescription opioid drugs.

Opioid Epidemic Update: The Gravest Threat Looming Over Today’s Society

Much is being done about opioid abuse? Photo by Raeky 

Do you know that drug overdoses have become the leading cause of death in the United States?

How is the Government Responding to the Opioid Crisis?

In response to the rapid increase in opioid misuse, addiction, and deaths in children, teens, and adults alike, the US government has been taking several measures to limit the prescription of these drugs.

This April, President Trump, via executive order has appointed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to lead an opioid commission to combat this public health crisis.

Crashing Down on Drug Dealers

Law enforcement agencies have been increasingly tightening the grip on drug dealers as well. Just recently, a large ‘pill mill’ was busted by DEA and other law enforcement agents. This illegal organization was responsible for producing over six million pills of opioid-related drugs.

The government is also undertaking several measures to protect people from opioid abuse and help them recover from their addiction and the courts have been giving severe punishments to the arrested drug dealers. If it is proved in court that someone has died by using the drug supplied by a dealer, he/she could be sentenced to an imprisonment of 20 years or more.

Restricting Fentanyl Usage

Fentanyl Pills

The Drug Enforcement Administration has labeled certain drugs as “Schedule I drugs” because they not only have the potential for abuse but also because they do not have any acceptable uses in the field of medical science. The list is comprised of different forms and types of fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a type of synthetic opioid painkiller that is 50 times stronger than heroin.

This step was much needed because of the huge threat fentanyl has been posing to US citizens recently. Between the years 2013 and 2015, a 600% increase was seen in death cases due to fentanyl overdoses.

Prescription Limitations

Additionally, various states have revised their laws with regard to prescribing opioid medicines and have put restrictions upon doctors to only prescribe if absolutely necessary and only for a short period i.e. 5 or 7 days. Also, the government has advised doctors to not prescribe narcotics during the earlier stage of treatments for pain relief.

Synthetic drugs are the most commonly misused opioids and heroin is gaining popularity because of the restrictions the government is putting on medical prescriptions, such as the prescription monitoring program known as I-STOP in New York State.

Immunity Laws

In response to the several research studies that reported that a lot of people do not call for help, even when someone from their family, friends, and/or acquaintances end up overdosing because they fear that it will create problems for them as well. This fear of getting arrested prevents a large number of people from obtaining immediate help due to drug mishandling.

To overcome this problem, many states introduced immunity laws to protect the people who report such cases from getting arrested.

Ensuring Easy Access to Treatment Programs and Facilities

Both federal and state governments have also been taking efficient measures to ensure people can easily access rehabilitation or treatment centers to get help. The fact that only 11.2% of those drug abusers who need professional help actually go to a treatment facility is alarming and has pushed the governments to increase the efforts to make sure people do reach out for help.

While governments have been increasingly implementing opioid-specific treatment programs in many states, affordable access is still lacking in areas where they are needed the most, particularly in the Southeast region of the United States, research studies found out. More steps need to be taken to make opioid treatment affordable for low-income Americans.

Halfway Houses

In addition to treatment facilities, Halfway houses also greatly help addicts in completely recovering from the addiction and also prevent the chances of relapse. Halfway houses help addicts not succumb to the post-rehab struggles and help them to not return to the drug usage after returning to normal life.

Development of Newer Techniques

Healthcare professionals have also been researching ways to deal with drug addiction in a better way and are coming up with newer techniques and methods. The approval of Probuphine implant by the FDA is a step in this direction.

Probuphine implant gets attached to the same nerve cells receptors as opioids drugs and slowly releases buprenorphine medicine into the patient’s body. The drug provides patient protection against the drug’s withdrawal symptoms for a period of six months, at least.

Training programs have been initiated for doctors to effectively use the lien of treatment to help addicts from relapsing after coming out of the rehabilitation center.

Latest Opioid Statistics

OpioidsAccording to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 23.5 million of 12 years or older Americans are involved in drug abuse to such an extent that they need proper medical treatment for that.

Within the category of drugs, opioid addiction and overdose have become the most prevalent problem and the gravest threat looming over the US. A report recently issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that cases of opioid overdoses and deaths, as a result, have greatly increased between the years 2010 and 2015.

In 2010, opioids were the cause of 57% of all drug overdose deaths, but the percentage reached 73% in 2015. According to CDC statistics, 91 Americans lose their lives every day as a result of opioids overdose.

Prescription drugs also contribute greatly to opioid overdose; they have caused four times to increase in numbers of deaths between 1999 and 2016.

The US Department of Health and Human Services has recently issued an alert that tells us how worse this problem of the opioid epidemic has become, in the country. It stated, “The United States is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. If you or your loved ones need help, know that treatment is available and it can help saving lives”.

Since now we know how widespread and grave the problem has become, it is highly important that we look into it and try to identify and understand the factors contributing to the issue in any way.

Final Word

Although the opioid epidemic is severe and poses great threats to the citizens, the government has been efficiently responding to the issue and increasingly taking measures to overcome it.