3 Reasons the Opioid Crisis is Getting Worse

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

The opioid crisis is now a public health emergency. The CDC reports increasing rates of fentanyl overdoses.  And The Economist warns the crisis is entering “a new and deadlier phase.”

The strategy to stop the overdose epidemic has largely focused on the supply side: limiting access to prescription opioids. History seems to support this idea. Two hundred years ago, a tincture of opium called laudanum was widely used to treat all kinds of ailments.  The “epidemic of laudanum” didn’t end until 1906, when the federal government got involved and started regulating opium-based medications.

So it seemed natural to curtail opioid prescribing. Washington State issued prescription opioid guidelines in 2010, Oregon in 2012, and the CDC in 2016. Other states followed with laws limiting the number of days opioids could be prescribed for short term, acute pain. Health insurers like Kaiser Permanente and Intermountain Healthcare have also reduced coverage of prescription opioids and drug store chains like CVS will be limiting prescription length and dose. 

In a narrow sense, this is working. Prescription opioid levels peaked in 2010, as a result of lower production quotas mandated by the DEA and reduced prescribing in a variety of clinical settings.

But in a broader sense, the focus on prescription opioid levels is failing. Opioid addiction and overdose rates continue to climb, despite the reduced availability of prescription opioids. There are three reasons for this.

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First, the main drivers in the crisis are now heroin and illicit fentanyl. Importantly, heroin is increasingly the first opioid of abuse.

“As the most commonly prescribed opioids - hydrocodone and oxycodone - became less accessible due to supply-side interventions, the use of heroin as an initiating opioid has grown at an alarming rate,” researchers recently reported in the journal of Addictive Behaviors.

Second, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 75% of all opioid misuse starts with people taking medication that was not prescribed to them. These pills are sourced from friends, stolen from other people’s prescription bottles, or purchased online illegally.

Contrary to common belief, opioid therapy for chronic pain conditions rarely leads to misuse or addiction. Most addictive behaviors start during adolescence, usually with substances like alcohol or tobacco, long before anyone gets their hands on opioid medication.

Third, nearly 10% of drug overdoses are intentional.

"Hidden behind the terrible epidemic of opioid overdose deaths looms the fact that many of these deaths are far from accidental. They are suicides,” wrote Dr. Maria Oquendo, President of the American Psychiatric Association, in a blog for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In other words, the crisis may have started with prescription opioids, but it has evolved. We are now facing a crisis driven primarily by heroin, illicit fentanyl, and other street drugs, as well as social and economic conditions that have led to an "epidemic of despair."

Therefore, the current intense focus on prescription opioids -- from the CDC’s Rx Awareness campaign to the recommendations of the President Trump’s opioid commission -- is woefully off target. Reducing access to prescription opioids has not decreased addiction and overdose rates, and may actually be making them worse.

Exactly what will be required to end the crisis is not clear. But an essential step is to understand the nature of the crisis as it stands today so as to end the opioid disconnect.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society.

Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.