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Opioids: Prescription Genocide

packets of prescription pills
The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that the misuse of opioids affects more than 2 million Americans and an estimated 15 million people worldwide each year. (Photo: Pixabay)

There is an insidious connection between doctor-prescribed opioids and heroin addiction, yet our society is not working together to end the opioid epidemic.

The misallocation of opioid prescriptions has caused a national crisis. In 2017, there were about 58 opioid prescriptions written for every 100 Americans. This means over half of the population has been prescribed opioids by a medical professional. While opioids have some valid medical uses, they are extremely addictive and cause more harm than good if taken long-term.

According to the CDC, as many as one in four patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting ends up struggling with addiction as a direct result. The most pressing issue arises when patients develop opioid dependency and have to abruptly stop due to their doctor cutting off their refills after long-term prescriptions. This causes the patient to seek out opioids from other sources to soothe their symptoms of withdrawal. When opioid-dependent users begin to obtain these drugs illegally, their risk of overdosing and ultimately dying increases substantially.

Opioid Addiction

Addiction can be defined as a disease of the brain, caused by a compulsion that causes the person to be irresistibly drawn to that particular substance of choice or behavioral pattern. Opioid addiction occurs after a dependency has been developed, causing problems in the user’s daily life. Patients taking opiates often develop a tolerance for the drug, causing them to need higher doses in order to treat their pain. When a patient’s tolerance becomes too high and their doctor can’t refill their prescriptions, they turn to outside sources in order to avoid withdrawal.

Opioid withdrawal is classified by the symptoms a person’s body goes through after he or she discontinues opioid use. When the body is dependent on any substance, it has to process the absence of the substance; causing an array of undesirable symptoms:

  • Muscle aches
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea and abdominal cramping
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dilated pupils and blurry vision
  • Rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure

Opioid addiction is becoming increasingly popular. The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that the misuse of opioids affects more than 2 million Americans and an estimated 15 million people worldwide each year. Also, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death in U.S. adults under age 50, with opioids responsible for more than half of overdose fatalities. These numbers are nothing short of a devasting example that our society is not working together to end the opioid epidemic.

Prescription Opioids, Heroin Addiction & Their Residual Effects

From the years 2002 to 2013, we have seen a 283% increase in heroin-related deaths. Similarly, the number of prescription opioids has also increased substantially over the years. According to research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 80% of heroin users began by abusing prescription opioids. It’s plain to see that there is an insidious connection between doctor-prescribed opioids and heroin addiction.

Addiction affects more than just the addict alone. In 2007, the total societal costs of prescription opioid abuse in the U.S. were estimated at $55.7 billion. The government has made attempts to cut down on the number of opioid prescriptions medical professionals are allowed to dole out.  With a recent rise in heroin addiction, research shows that the societal cost of heroin abuse disorder was around $51.2 billion in 2015 ($50,799 per heroin user).

This money goes to fund heroin or opioid-related incarceration, workplace costs (lost earnings caused by premature death), rehabilitation for heroin and opioid addicts, and medical costs for heroin or opioid-related diseases or injuries. It is plausible to argue that we as a society, need to work harder to educate people about addiction and support our peers to recover. As a result, we could significantly reduce the number of people being jailed or hospitalized; ultimately reducing the societal costs.

How Can We Help?

If you or someone you know is suffering from opioid addiction, it is imperative that you seek out professional medical assistance. Opioid addiction, if left untreated, often leads to death. According to the CDC, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. If we come together as a society to create a more supportive and safe environment for addicts to recover, we could greatly reduce the amount of devastation opioids are currently causing.

We need to educate ourselves, our children, and the rest of the world about what addiction is, how it is caused, and how we can fight it. There is a huge stigma in regard to addicts that contributes to their aversion of asking for help. People look down upon addicts and assume that they are just morally defected when in reality – they have a legitimate mental disorder. Opioid abuse disorder is officially recognized in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This information alone should be evidence enough to end the stigma. In order to continue to fight against stigmas, raise awareness, and put a stop to the exponentially rising death toll, we need to gain an understanding and a sense of empathy towards people suffering from substance abuse disorders.

Kailey Fitzgerald

Kailey is a writer in the recovery community. Her life's passion is to aid in the fight to break stigmas and spread awareness in regards to mental health and addiction.


  1. Jill October 19, 2019

    There are so many false statements in this article. True chronic pain patients are left suffering, contemplating suicide. Get your facts straight!

    1. Kailey Fitzgerald November 26, 2019

      I’m not referring to patients who have been properly prescribed opiates.

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