Report: The Numbers Behind the Opioid Crisis

Summary and Analysis…

What do the numbers really mean in countless reports? They mean deaths. Deaths of approximately 64,000 people in 2016, with a shifting demographics consisting of typically white, single or divorced, and with relatively less formal education. The stereotypical addict of the 1960s (four out of five) began with heroin and stayed with it. Today’s opioid addict usually began with a legally prescribed opioid or illegally getting someone else’s prescription, three out of four. This is easy to understand once you see that in 2016 there were about 215 million prescriptions for opioids, given to 61.8 million patients, which is a whopping 19.1 percent of the U.S. population.

This abuse of prescription pain relievers is at the heart of the crisis. As this was discovered to be the case, more people were denied legal prescriptions for opioids and so turned to illegal drugs such as heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanyl. These newer editions of the original drug heroin are much more potent and deadlier: fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more addictive and carfentanyl is 5,000 times more addictive.

Excerpted from Social Capital Project

With rising overdose death rates driven by heroin and fentanyl, most indicators suggest that the worst of the crisis has yet to pass. Early 2016 data suggest that fentanyl has surpassed heroin in overdose deaths, skyrocketing 540 percent in three years to 20,100 deaths. Heroin abuse continues to rise. Abuse of prescription opioids appears to be falling, along with opioid prescription rates, but slowly, and deaths from the category of opioids that includes prescription pain relievers continue to rise.

Beyond the proximal factors contributing to the opioid crisis, there is the question of why some people succumb to addiction and some do not. As we have seen, there are regular patterns in the national picture of opioid use, abuse, and death; some people and places are more vulnerable to addiction than others. This is true of other forms of despair as well. The special evilness of opioids is that they offer practically no quarter to those who are most vulnerable to addiction. For opioid addicts, compared to others dependent on drugs, “the recovery period is longer and the chance of relapse is higher.” One study interviewed 109 patients following discharge from residential addiction treatment and found that over nine in ten reported a relapse, with nearly six in ten of those occurring in the first week.

Successfully combatting the opioid crisis will require that we better understand the sources of despair and vulnerability that lead to addiction. As Christopher Caldwell poignantly notes:

Calling addiction a disease usefully describes certain measurable aspects of the problem—particularly tolerance and withdrawal. It fails to capture what is special and dangerous about the way drugs bind with people’s minds. Almost every known disease is something people wish to be rid of. Addiction is different. Addicts resist known cures—even to the point of death. If you do not reckon with why addicts go to such lengths to continue suffering, you are unlikely to figure out how to treat them. This turns out to be an intensely personal matter.