From Bad to Worse: The Future of the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

The opioid crisis is getting worse. STAT News is predicting that “opioids could kill nearly half a million people across America over the next decade as the crisis of addiction and overdose accelerates.” The Guardian calls it “this generation’s AIDS crisis.”

There are three developments now at work that are likely to determine the future direction of the opioid crisis: Illicit drugs coming from China and Mexico; healthcare reform and funding for addiction treatment; and the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, chaired by New Jersey governor Chris Christie.  

With opioid prescriptions dropping since 2010, heroin and illicit fentanyl are now the main drivers of the opioid crisis. The U.S. is trying to get China to shut down illicit labs and stop the shipment of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids to Mexican drug cartels. But The Globe and Mail warns that “hoping Chinese police and border officials can solve the problem is unlikely to be an effective strategy.”

The New York Times reports illicit drugs can also be obtained online over the “dark web” and attempts to block overseas shipments of such drugs have met with little success so far.

In the U.S. Senate, the GOP healthcare bill would allocate $2 billion to addiction treatment, but CNN reports that “those on the front lines say the bill won't help the opioid crisis -- and very well could make matters worse.” The reason, says Politico, is that “throwing a pile of cash at addiction won’t make it go away.”

Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway echoes that belief, warning that “money alone hasn’t solved the problem. Obamacare spent billions of dollars and where are we?”

“It takes money and it also takes a four letter word called will,” she told ABC News, a comment that infuriated addiction treatment supporters.

Two Republican senators want to boost funding for addiction treatment to $45 billion, but experts say even that amount of money would be inadequate because it doesn’t provide for the treatment of other healthcare problems – like HIV and hepatitis C – that many addicts have.

Addiction treatment was the focus of the first meeting of the White House Opioid Commission, which was appointed by President Trump to come up with solutions to the opioid crisis.  During last month’s meeting, Mitchell Rosenthal, MD, founder of the addiction treatment chain Phoenix House, warned that “nothing we are doing today has been able to halt the spread of opioid addiction. Controlling prescription opioid medication has not done so.”

The commission has until October 1 to present its recommendations to President Trump, but the panel has already missed one deadline for an interim report and postponed its second meeting until next week.

As you can see, there are no easy solutions. The opioid crisis is a perfect storm of increasingly available illicit drugs, very limited and costly treatment resources, and virtually no early detection or prevention. We can’t simply legislate, regulate or incarcerate our way out.

Nothing less than a comprehensive and coordinated national response will end the crisis. We need early intervention and preventative education, long-term treatment of opioid addiction using medication-assisted therapy, and careful and humane oversight of prescription opioids that doesn’t take them away from patients who need them. What we will get remains to be seen.

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.