The Opioid Crisis: A New Vietnam?

About 50 years ago, one of the most destructive wars in American history took place. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers were drafted and killed, without a victory or ending in sight. Now, a similar crisis is occurring. Thousands upon thousands of Americans are dying. Each year, the number grows higher and higher. However, the cause of death is no longer people wielding guns, knives, and swords. Now, we are fighting prescribed painkillers and opioids. Now, the fight is no longer noble.

The Opioid Crisis began in the 1990s when doctors declared that prescription drugs were not classified as addictive. Patients began to increase their dosage of drugs and unwittingly became addicted. This process continued and led to increasing overdoses until doctors realized that prescription drugs can be highly addictive. However, by that item, it was too late. The Opioid Crisis that still haunts us today had already begun.

Even with the technological innovations of the past ten years alone, prescription drug abuse continues to take lives today. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2016 reported 64,000 opioid-related deaths in the U.S.A. alone; this is the highest number yet. Victims often begin their addiction with abuse of prescription drugs. The descent into opioid addiction can begin with something as simple as a muscle strain. Athena, who chose to keep her last name anonymous, recalls that her cousin became “hooked because she strained her back and [was prescribed medication]. After a while, she began to purchase Percocet [a prescription pain reliever] instead of diapers” for her children. As her addiction progressed, Athena’s cousin began to act “more and more irritated.” Eventually, she began to “steal money she didn’t have from [her] parents,” and obtain the high amounts of drugs that lead to her overdose. Thankfully, Athena’s sister remains excluded from the 64,000 who were killed— she survived her hospitalization and was detoxed off of Percocet.

Graph of the rising number of opioid-related deaths (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Unfortunately, not all victims of overdose consciously choose to abuse opioids. A large portion of opioid-related deaths are individuals under the age of thirteen. More and more children are eating their parent’s opioids, under the impression that the pills are candy. Teenagers are also often able to obtain opioids with little effort. They will often be given them for free by other relatives who are unaware of the risk of addiction and the other dangers of non-medical opioid use. The National Center for Health Statistics reported that ten teenagers in every 100,000 people died from overdose in 2015.

If the loss of human lives is not enough to bring the crisis to the attention of people around the world, then the destruction that opioids cause to any capitalist economy should be. Opioids make workers unable to function, and therefore unable to do their jobs. Younger addicts often fail to follow through with their education, taking workers out of the economy and reducing the efficiency of resource use. When Lana, who chose to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, became hooked on methamphetamine, she “was constantly skipping school, getting bad grades in high school- eventually dropping out. She just could not focus enough to complete the tasks assigned to her.” She was unable to complete her education until after her rehabilitation. Although it seems heartless to say, Lana became an idle resource: her drug addiction inhibited both her life and the economy.

Incompetence and failing drug tests both reduce the size of the workforce, leading to a decrease in circulation of money, for these people no longer obtain wages. Those who suffer from addiction to opioids can no longer function in society; they often become the homeless individuals living off the sides of the road that we pass by every day. Like Lana, it is only after the addicted individual spends great lengths of time and money in detoxing that they can become beneficial to the economy once more.

Graph of the effect of prescription opioids on the economy (Image: Brookings Institution)

How does Donald Trump play into all of this? As the President on the United States, Trump has the power to issue executive orders and enforce them. If Trump follows through on his executive order and makes anti-overdose drugs easy to access, then the number of opioid-related deaths will reduce. Naloxone is a life-saving medication that can reverse an overdose. By allowing first responders to carry naloxone, overdoses will be treated quicker and lives will be saved. Furthermore, the Nation Institute of Health is working to improve non-addictive pain relief that will limit the usage of opioids. Educating minors about the effects of drug abuse is a major solution to opioid addiction. Knowing the harm that is brought upon an individual reduces the desire take prescription drugs beyond safe amounts.

Life-saving and overdose-reversing naloxone (Image: Google Images)

The Opioid Crisis is a tragic and awful event that affects many individuals all around the world. It is clear the we must act, but how? The everyday person can assist, especially by making others aware of the danger of abusing prescription drugs. We can also work to remove the stigma surrounding asking for help. If addicted individuals felt comfortable using the resources that can end their downward spiral, perhaps they would actually reach out and do so. Finally, we can address the problems that often lead to drug abuse. Many who end up addicted to opioids turned to pain relievers as methods of escape from depression, anxiety, and other mental illness. Addressing these issues before they lead to drug abuse can stop the opioid crisis from taking even more lives.

Rather than allowing the crisis to proceed like Vietnam, we can work towards an end. Progress will not occur overnight. But when we educate our youth and help those who suffer from mental illnesses, opioid abuse becomes less likely. Although we could not stop the drafting of soldiers to Vietnam, we are capable of reducing drug abuse and opioid-related deaths.

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