Addiction is a Disease: Prescription Pills, Heroin, and Addressing the Problem

February 22, 2016

In recent years the media have warned about drug epidemics. In 2003 it was Ecstasy, the hallucinogenic club drug, and then in 2006 methamphetamines became the ‘hot’ drug that everyone was anxious about. These drugs are indeed dangerous and highly addictive, but the number of people involved in use, abuse and addiction were small in comparison to alcohol whose numbers have remained high for decades. This is not to diminish the suffering and heartbreak of the people getting addicted to these drugs and their families, but neither were real epidemics in either size or scope. However, we now have a very serious drug epidemic with opioids or narcotic pain relievers and the media are correct in calling it so.

Opiates are a class of drugs associated with pain and inflammation relief and include drugs such as Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin which are synthetic forms of opium, and heroin which is a derivative of morphine. There are legal ways to get prescription opiates. For example, most patients leaving the hospital after surgery are usually prescribed up to 30 milligrams per day of Percocet to manage ongoing pain post-surgery. The prescription can only be written for a 30 day supply because of the high rate of addiction associated with this pain killer. However, pain is a subjective phenomenon where one person can tolerate a higher level of pain while others cannot, thus they may need more of the drug to manage their pain. The danger in continuing or increasing the dosage is that the individual develops a tolerance whereby they need more of the drug over time to achieve the desired effect. The overuse of prescription opiates has increased so fast that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned physicians repeatedly about the dangers of addiction. According to the CDC nearly 2 million Americans either abused or were dependent on opioid painkillers in 2013 with 16,000 people dying from overdoses. The number of prescriptions written for opiates in 2014 was more than 219 million, so it is not too hard to imagine that people are getting addicted at alarming rates.

Not always, but some prescription opiate abusers ‘graduate’ to heroin which provides a better high and is often cheaper than pills bought on the street. Initially these users will smoke the heroin but many move up to intravenous injection (IV) which has many possible serious consequences, least of which is HIV infection. The epidemic of heroin and opiate abusers has reached many small towns throughout the country where one might not suspect it to occur. Most of the small towns are in economically depressed areas where unemployment is high and expectations of a better life are bleak, thus, putting people at risk for depression and desperation. Turning to opiates is a way to cope and ‘forget’ one’s plight, at least for a couple of hours. In my experience, self-medicating a depression with drugs or alcohol is very common in any situation, but it has become clear that disenfranchised people in either small towns or neglected inner city neighborhoods are at a higher risk.

Currently on the presidential campaign trail, opiate addiction has become a hot topic. Even President Obama has proposed a $1.5 billion aid package to increase the availability of treatment to the many who are suffering from this disease. Looking at addiction in general as a disease that requires treatment as opposed to the interdiction model, where we continue to incarcerate the drug users, is the right step. However, addressing the demand for the drug (poverty, underemployment, family breakdown to name a few) is an area that has been poorly addressed since the beginning of the war on drugs.

Will we ever eradicate the abuse of drugs fully? Not likely, but we can reduce the epidemic numbers that keep increasing with good treatment and prevention programs. If you or someone you know if living with an addiction, please get help. Please contact Client Care: 215-382-6680 Ext 1. or click here.