It’s likely you’ve seen the picture that’s gone viral, taken by a police officer in East Liverpool, OH recently. It shows a man and a woman in an SUV who’ve passed out from opiates, with the woman’s grandchild in a car seat in the back. Videos have been posted on YouTube of people who’ve simply collapsed on the street or in a store from the drugs they’ve taken.
It’s one of the symptoms of opiate overdosing: extreme sleepiness or the inability to wake up. Other symptoms are confusion, appearing drunk, pinpoint pupils, vomiting, and extreme constipation. But the killer symptom is problems breathing. Opiates suppress body functions, including breathing. That’s how people die from opiates. They simply stop breathing.
Dependence vs. Addiction
A new player is coming on the scene – Suboxone, a drug that doesn’t give the euphoric high of prescription opiates or heroin, but helps the body to receive the physical effects of the drugs. Like Methadone before it, the idea is to support the dependence of the body on the drugs without having the person slide into addiction.
Addiction is a psychological term rather than a physical diagnosis. You can be dependent without being addicted. The classic definition of drug addiction is when the craving for the drug severely disrupts a person’s daily activities and that craving becomes all-consuming for the addict. As mentioned earlier, opiates facilitate that by changing the biology of the brain, a condition from which it can take years to recover.
It remains to be seen if Suboxone can help ween people from opiates rather than just maintaining the status quo of dependence. That’s long been a critique of Methadone treatment. What is clear is that until the root condition that led to the problem is addressed, be it physical, emotional, or psychological, users will be handicapped when it comes to kicking the drug.
The Resistance of Big Pharma
Opioid drugs bring billions of dollars into the coffers of the drug companies. With their use quadrupling between 1999 and 2010, it’s only become more of a cash generator, and the companies fight hard against any restrictions on their products. They employ a huge number of lobbyists at the state level, with some states having a one-on-one ratio between legislators and pharmaceutical lobbyists.
They have the resources to make their position heard through donations to political campaigns. Between 2006 and 2015, Big Pharma spent $880 million on campaign contributions and lobbyists. It has worked. Apart from some Northeastern States and Upper Midwest States, legislatures rarely had bills that even mentioned opioids in the past three years. Those fighting to tighten restrictions on opioid prescriptions are spending about a 220th of the amount – $4 million – and the organizations are tiny, grassroots operations. It’s like David going up against Goliath without any pebbles for his sling.
Big Pharma has another resource as well when it comes to making their pitch for their product, and that’s supposedly independent advocacy groups that are in fact funded by the drug companies. Doctor groups in several states have also pushed back against any restrictions, arguing that the legislature should not tell them how to practice medicine.
The daily statistics about prescription opioids and heroin in this country are staggering. 650,000 prescriptions for opioids are written each day. 3900 people begin using pills illicitly. 580 people start using heroin. But the worse stat: 78 people die. As the number of prescriptions quadrupled in the first decade of this century, so did the number of overdose deaths from opioids.
I began this series shortly after the death of Prince due to a prescription opioid overdose. Since the 1990s we’ve also lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cory Monteith from “Glee,” Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, and Chris Farley, among others. Since 1999, the number of deaths from overdoses has totaled 165,000. And it keeps going up.
But there are other costs beyond the deaths. The child in the picture I mentioned at the beginning of this post was abandoned by his mother, a drug user, when he was 8 days old. His great-grandparents were awarded custody, but when they could no longer care for a child, he moved in with his grandmother. She was, along with her boyfriend, the others in the picture. He’s now in the temporary custody of a great-aunt and uncle in another state. The destruction of addiction goes far beyond the addict, and it will be something our society will need to deal with for many years to come.
Pfannenstiel, Brianne “As Opioid Epidemic Grows, Drug Makers Resist Restrictions” Des Moines Register, September 19, 2016
Park, Alice “A New Paradigm for Opioid Addiction: More Drugs” TIME, October 24, 2016