The Real Story Behind the Overdose Epidemic — Pain News Network


By Stefan Franzen, guest columnist

A recent comment in The New York Times by German Lopez (“The Dangers of Legalization”) flatly states that prescription opioids caused the overdose epidemic.

“The problem started with a legal, regulated drug: prescription painkillers,” writes Mr. Lopez while filing a lawsuit challenging legalization as the solution to our drug problems.

“A lot of the people who are now using heroin or fentanyl started on painkillers. And drug cartels began shipping heroin and fentanyl into the US more aggressively, seeing a promising customer base in the growing number of painkiller users.”

Mr. Lopez is confused. Heroin has been illegal in the US since Congress passed the Harrison Act in 1914, but that hasn’t stopped millions of Americans from trying heroin, just as Prohibition hasn’t stopped people from drinking alcohol. The same goes for other illegal drugs like cocaine, LSD, and marijuana.

Prescription opioids are legal drugs when they can be obtained with a prescription. To say that we tried legalization and it failed is simply not true. Perhaps Mr. Lopez is confusing opioid prescription liberalization, which began in 1997, with legalization. In this case, there was a movement in the medical community and among some drug companies to expand the use of opioids for pain.

Mr. Lopez correctly reports that many of the problems that arose during that time stemmed from the Drug Enforcement Administration failing in its responsibility to investigate when there was evidence of massive shipments of painkillers to rural counties by companies like Purdue Pharma .

The government’s role in failing to protect consumers is the real story, overlooked by the mainstream media too busy informing the public about the recent lawsuit against drug companies and opioid dealers. The most injured consumers were and are chronic pain sufferers.

Of course, it’s also tragic that many people became involved in opioid prescription and became addicted because Purdue completely failed to investigate when Purdue began shipping millions of OxyContin pills to rural counties in states like West Virginia and Tennessee . The mistake made here was not “legalization”. It allowed greed and corruption to co-opt an effort by the medical community to reach people in greatest pain.

It is a false narrative that the overdose epidemic was created by the expansion of opioid prescription and that drug cartels only target pain sufferers.

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows why this is a wildly wrong assumption. The CDC estimates that nearly 108,000 people will die from overdoses in 2021, a 15% increase from the previous year. Drug-related deaths related to synthetic opioids – mainly illicit fentanyl – rose to 71,000, and there were 33,000 deaths related to methamphetamine and other stimulants.

Only 13,000 overdoses in the past year were related to prescription opioids — about 12% of all drug-related deaths — but there’s no available data to tell us how many of those overdoses involved patients who were actually prescribed the drugs. It is believed that most of those who died were taking a prescription opioid intended for someone else that was purchased or stolen. Or maybe they took one of the millions of fake pills flooding the country.

Overdose deaths from illicit fentanyl and other street drugs have been rising for years, yet almost every media report continues to exaggerate the role of prescription opioids, giving the public the completely false impression that doctors who prescribed pain patients caused the overdose epidemic . Commentators like Mr. Lopez, who back their statements with few facts, have no idea how much damage these statements are causing our most vulnerable citizens.

There was no “legalization” of prescription drugs as they were already legal. And treating those in pain with greater decency wasn’t a failed experiment — just greed, corruption, and incompetence that have thwarted efforts to bring some quality of life to patients suffering from the worst kinds of pain, be it sickle cell or ankylosing Spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, muscular dystrophy or adhesive arachnoiditis.

Others who experience excruciating pain include wounded veterans, car accident survivors, and fire victims. I didn’t mention cancer, which obviously can be extremely painful, just because cancer is the only disease that commentators sometimes admit should be treated with opioid therapy. In the absence of a pain meter to provide data, I would simply like to point out that any disease that causes significant physiological changes, inflammation, or tissue degeneration can be very painful. We should all respect that fact. We are all prone to pain.

We need to meet the anti-opioid fanatics whenever they write or speak and call them out for their inaccurate and ill-informed comments. Unfortunately like forums National Public Radio and The New York Times If they didn’t respond to my attempts to draw attention to the facts, they were wrong. As a scientist, I believe in evidence.


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