The Grim Future of the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

The opioid crisis continues to be misunderstood. In a speech last week in Tennessee, President Trump said the nation was making progress “getting rid of the scourge that’s taking over our country.”

“The (opioid prescription) numbers are way down. We’re getting the word out — bad. Bad stuff. You go to the hospital, you have a broken arm, you come out, you’re a drug addict with this crap. It’s way down. We’re doing a good job with it,” Trump said.

Indeed, prescription opioid levels are falling. In that sense, and only that sense, the numbers are down. But addiction stemming from medical treatment was never a significant factor in the crisis to begin with. A new review from the British Journal of Anesthesiology found that opioid dependence or abuse occurs in less than 5 percent of patients prescribed opioids for pain.

By most other measures, the opioid crisis is rapidly getting worse. The number of people addicted to heroin is rising, the number of ER admissions for overdoses is increasing, and the number of fatal overdoses from all drugs -- legal and illegal --  has skyrocketed to nearly 64,000 a year.

Drug deaths linked to illicit fentanyl and heroin now outnumber those from prescription opioids, as do overdoses involving medications used to treat depression and anxiety.


The CDC, DEA and FDA increasingly recognize that illegal drugs, including diverted prescription opioids, are the key features of the current crisis. But stopping this flow has become a nightmarish challenge.

The significance of illicit fentanyl in the crisis cannot be underestimated. Fentanyl is spreading throughout the black market as an adulterant or ingredient in counterfeit pills, cocaine, heroin and other illicit substances. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates there are 15 to 30 different fentanyl analogues circulating in the drug supply. Fentanyl is so potent it is usually shipped in such minute amounts that detecting them in vehicles, the mail, or FedEx and UPS shipments is close to impossible.

Online drug markets serve as middlemen who find customers for illicit manufacturers in China and distributors in Mexico and Canada. No cartels, street corner dealers, or vats of drugs being snuck across borders. Just high-speed Internet connections and cryptocurrencies. 

“This is what makes the opioid crisis so unique and dangerous,” Peter Vincent, who led international operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the Obama administration, told The New York Times. “Traditionally, law enforcement has focused on large quantities of drugs like marijuana and cocaine. But very small amounts of opioids can bring tremendous profits.”

In other words, we are fast approaching a point at which supply-side interventions will be virtually pointless. Back in the 19th century, we could control the supply of morphine. In the 20th century, we could, to some extent, control the supply of heroin. But in the 21st century, we can’t do the same for fentanyl and its chemical cousins.

Even if borders and ports are secured, fentanyl can be manufactured inside the U.S. And if the Postal Service and commercial couriers like FedEx are closely monitored and inspected, private networks and ad hoc distribution systems -- the modern equivalent of old bootlegging operations -- can move drugs around the country with ease.

Thus, a bill that would impose a national 3-day limit on opioid prescriptions for acute pain, as proposed by Sen. Robert Portman (R-Ohio), is off target. And efforts to combat the opioid crisis by using aromatherapy in ambulances are naive at best.

Instead, drug addiction treatment in the form of medication assisted therapy (MAT) needs to be available everywhere. Medications like methadone have existed for decades, but as David Courtwright notes in his book “Dark Paradise” on the history of opioids in America, methadone "never emerged as a coherent national response to heroin addiction.”

The national response is still not coherent. There is little interest in developing an infrastructure to treat people with substance use disorders or programs to reduce the risks of addiction. Instead we see a continuing, misguided focus on prescription opioids as both the cause and solution. Until that changes, the future of the crisis remains grim.

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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.