A Brief History of the American Opioid Epidemic

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Opioid drugs such as morphine, fentanyl and heroin (Image Credit: SN Explores)

The opioid epidemic, currently wreaking havoc in the United States, is a large part of a wider drug overdose epidemic that has claimed approximately 932,000 lives from 1999 to 2019, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This epidemic, characterized by widespread misuse and addiction to opioids, affects individuals, families, and communities across all socio-economic groups. To understand its scale and implications, it is crucial to explore its root causes and social impact.

Opioids, a category of drugs encompassing prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, are at the heart of this crisis. These potent substances’ ability to alleviate pain and induce artificial feelings of euphoria has led to an alarming rate of misuse and addiction. The path to this state of crisis involves various complex factors. Tracing back to the late 1990s, the initiation of the opioid crisis can be partly attributed to reassurances by pharmaceutical companies that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers. As a result of this false reassurance, healthcare providers could increase prescription rates with a clean conscious, thus leading to the widespread misuse of opioids before the realization of their high addiction potential. By this point it was too late, the problem had been birthed and it was only going to get worse. 

Beyond the medical community’s role, socio-economic factors also play a significant part in the epidemic. Economic hardship and lack of stable employment have led to increased drug use as a form of self-medication; people are willing to use opioids as a substitute for real healthcare because by comparison they are much cheaper and are far more convenient. The correlation between areas of economic decline and high rates of opioid misuse highlights the desperation and disillusionment experienced by individuals grappling with financial instability. The lack of viable opportunities for economic advancement exacerbates feelings of despair, often triggering substance misuse as a coping mechanism. Further, diminished social cohesion within many communities contributes to the issue. Fragmented community structures characterized by reduced familial support and weakened social bonds tend to experience higher rates of substance misuse. As individuals feel increasingly alienated and alone, the appeal of opioid use as a temporary escape from reality becomes more appealing. The issue is further compounded by disparities in access to addiction treatment, particularly in rural areas. Limited availability of healthcare services and inadequate insurance coverage in these regions often results in delayed or insufficient treatment, intensifying the addiction cycle by encouraging opioid usage as a more desirable route.

In addition, the increasing availability of powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl – often illegally manufactured and distributed – poses a significant risk. Their potency far surpasses that of other opioids, thereby drastically escalating the risk of overdose.

The opioid epidemic’s societal repercussions are immense, with anti-social behavior being a particularly disconcerting consequence. Individuals grappling with opioid use disorder often experience a disconnection from societal norms and values, precipitating a retreat from positive, supportive relationships. The overpowering dependency on opioids often relegates familial, work, and community responsibilities to the background, fostering a vicious cycle of isolation and continued drug misuse.

As already mentioned, the anti-social behavior linked to opioid misuse frequently manifests in the form of neglecting personal responsibilities, reducing participation in community activities, and deteriorating personal relationships. It can result in family discord, neglect of children, and widespread emotional trauma, creating a ripple effect throughout the community, the passing on of these addictions can be absolutely devastating for families and the communities they live in: the disengagement from social norms and obligations erodes the communal fabric and deprives society of valuable contributions from the affected individuals.

Increased crime rates are another critical byproduct of this crisis. The desperate need to maintain drug supply often drives individuals to engage in property crimes, including theft and burglary. This surge in criminal activities destabilizes communities, contributes to an environment of fear and lawlessness, and places an additional burden on the criminal justice system. From skyrocketing healthcare costs to reduced workforce productivity, the ripple effects of the opioid epidemic stretch far and wide. Without a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach that addresses judicious prescribing practices, access to treatment, harm reduction strategies, and crucially, socio-economic disparities, the crisis will continue unabated.

The opioid epidemic in the US is a societal crisis of grave proportions; it is a complex issue, rooted deeply in our society which is why addressing this crisis requires an integrated, holistic approach that recognizes its complex nature and the deep societal wounds it inflicts.

Written by Vincent Kikano

Share this:

You may also like...