Drug addicts require aid

Medical treatment should be expanded to include opioid addicts

When we picture addiction, we might imagine a newsreel from the ‘80s focused on the inner cities that suffered from the crack epidemic and the accompanying explosion in gang activity and urban decay. We probably would not visualize a doctor’s office as a major source of drug addiction.

Yet legal pain management medication, like Vicodin and Percocet, is fueling the great U.S. drug epidemic. A recent prescription audit illustrates that opioid prescriptions increased from 76 to 201 million over the past two decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that patients who abuse or are dependent on these prescriptions are 40 times more likely to use heroin.

Until the ‘90s, opioid prescriptions were reserved mainly for extreme pain management and palliative care. Since then, pain has become the fifth vital sign. Public opinion surrounding opioid medication has shifted to disregard of its risks and blind acceptance of its effectiveness at managing pain. Now, conditions as common as backaches almost invariably lead to a doctor’s prescription for opioids. In fact, so widespread are these prescriptions that the CDC found that enough opiates were prescribed in 2012 to give every adult his or her own bottle of pills.

Nationally, deaths related to overdose of opioids have risen from 7.9 to 9.0 per 100,000 people between 2013 and 2014. Some counties, dispersed mainly throughout Appalachia, the Northeast and the Midwest, have rates three times as high. The local and state governments of these regions are desperately struggling to deal with the influx of overdose cases and the addicts that precede them. One distressed town in Massachusetts, for example, resorted to building a public restroom to deter drug use in other areas, like churches and schoolyards.

Several institutions, like the CDC, have already published reports that suggest how to reduce the human cost of this epidemic. They focus on limiting the supply of opioids, call for the restructuring of the prescription process and seek to nationalize a patient monitoring system to minimize prescription abuse. However, while these recommendations should see immediate universal adoption, more must be done than merely targeting the bloated supply of opioid medication.

We need to realize that addiction is not the criminal justice issue that it has been viewed as for the past several decades. Once the stigma surrounding addiction is removed, once we stop picturing inner city criminals when we hear the word “addiction,” those who need treatment will find it. We must also dramatically expand treatment availability for current addicts.

While the White House has called for an additional $400 million in early intervention, treatment and recovery for opioid abuse, Medicaid in only 28 states provides for opioid dependence. Such treatment should be available to everyone who needs it.

These solutions will be costly and timely to implement. However, there exists no other way to undo the damage caused by decades of free supply and the popular designation of the local doctor as “the candy man.”