Opioids: an impending crisis

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ART BY SHIRLEENS KWONG

 There is a disease festering in the United States.

  For those who do not experience it firsthand or have to deal with its consequences, it often goes quietly unnoticed, while continuing to spread and afflict Americans everywhere.

  It has many names: fentanyl, codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone. All deviations of opioids, they are responsible for the ongoing crisis that is currently sweeping the nation.  

  Taking rise in the late 1990s, prescribed opioid medications unknowingly induced drug addiction in an entire generation. Decades later, this crisis is yet to be resolved. 

  As of January 2019, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that more than 130 people in the United States die from opioid overdoses every day. More than 47,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2017, and an estimated 1.7 million people suffered from substance abuse disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. The people of the United States are now tumbling down a seemingly bottomless pit of extensive substance abuse. With such staggering statistics, there appears to be nothing to cling to for the thousands of people whose lives have been destroyed by opioid addiction. 

  The nation has proliferated an industry that piggybacks off of addiction for profit, both privately and federally, leaving the people to fend for themselves.  

 Take, for example, a pharmaceutical company central to this case study: Johnson & Johnson. In a recent Oklahoma trial, Johnson & Johnson was tried for marketing opioid painkillers in a misleading way. Arguably, their role in perpetuating the opioid crisis is linked to the profitability of prescription painkillers. The company was also litigated for manufacturing raw opioid ingredients and selling them to other companies—one being Purdue. Purdue produces OxyContin, a very strong—and extremely addictive—opioid painkiller, intended only as a last resort for severe pain that requires around-the-clock treatment. Purdue is currently at the center of a trial similar to that of Johnson & Johnson; both companies have been accused of overproducing these drugs and marketing them as safer than they are in order to profit. 

  The pharmaceutical industry has fought against bills aimed towards criminalizing the illegal manufacturing and distribution of opioids for years. Because the industry is a major political donor, they have been able to effectively limit legislation regarding the opioid crisis as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA’s) power to restrict legal distribution of opioids.

  These factors have created an oversupply,  making opioids much more readily available than they should be. 

  Truly, downplaying the effects of these painkillers and providing such ease of access has allowed the nation to fall prey to this devastating crisis. Yet, while pharmaceutical companies are largely at fault for furthering opioid addiction, there is another, much more powerful entity that must be held accountable for their part in the epidemic: Congress. 

  In September 2015, U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte attempted to introduce legislation that would increase the prison term for those convicted of illegally distributing fentanyl, and reduce the amount of the drug required to be sentenced. 

  Just months prior to Ayotte’s proposal, the DEA went as far as to issue a warning about the surge in fentanyl usage and related deaths. Fentanyl is one of the main culprits of the opioid crisis, a powerful synthetic drug that has proved itself to be one of the most deadly substances of the nation’s illicit drug industry. Although manufactured and distributed by pharmaceutical companies under brand names like Duragesic, the majority of fentanyl-related overdoses are linked to illegally made fentanyl. 

  Despite recognition of widespread opioid addiction and overdoses across the nation, Congress has failed to enact legislation regarding the crisis. Ayotte’s bill was swept aside, as the Senate was simultaneously trying to pass a criminal justice reform bill that would shorten the duration of mandatory drug sentences. Ayotte’s bill never received a vote, revealing that drug reform is at the bottom of Congress’s list of priorities.

  In 2017, Florida Representative Thomas J. Rooney attempted to reintroduce the bill, to no avail. It took until December 2017 for Congress to pass a bill specifically targeting the use of fentanyl, despite the fact that several lawmakers began to bring the issue to light as early as 2013. Seeing as the opioid crisis as a whole was first spurred in the 1990s, Congress has no excuse for their inaction.

  Congress has ultimately done little to intervene at all. Between 2016 and 2018, they did, however, pass bills related to heroin and prescription drug abuse that expanded addiction recovery programs and increased access to overdose-reversing medications—but as groves of individuals die each day from opioid use, it is obvious that the government is not doing enough to  restore sobriety to the nation. 

  Even with the expansion of treatment programs, drug users are likely to be placed on a waiting list. Simply put, there are not enough resources to account for just how many people presently struggle with opioid addiction.

    Until Congress sets aside their agenda for profit and implements legislation that will actively stem the opioid crisis, their gross neglect for the nation’s acute epidemic will only allow the situation to worsen. We can only hope that the government will take action towards rehabilitating the nation.

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