Since 2012, a drug epidemic has affected the United States, the country with the largest number of opiate users – heroin and its derivatives. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some 72,000 people died from overdoses of opiates, especially fentanyl and heroin, in 2017. There, drugs produce more deaths than HIV, weapons of fire or accidents on the road.
However, the US anti-drug policy is going to adopt a different perspective than the “hard hand” that was applied decades ago, as this situation does not stop. Progress will be made towards a necessary reform of the general framework of the drug conventions.
In this way, we work on an approach that, instead of relying on prohibition and criminalization, is based on public health, psychology and human rights. Let’s deepen.
Opioid epidemic in the US
The US war on drugs has never stopped, it has only changed with the passage of time and context. When crack began to sweep the United States, beginning in 1984, the epidemic focused mainly on poor urban areas with predominantly black and Latino populations.
At that time, the response of the authorities was based on the “zero tolerance” policy. Severe prison sentences were applied for all drug-related offenses, even without violence.
“Black and lower-class youth like marijuana but you do not usually see them using heroin. They grew up watching these drug addicts in their streets and they know what happened to their parents with crack in the nineties, they do not want to go back to that.”
On the other hand, although the use of heroin has increased in all demographic groups, the current epidemic of opiates occurs mainly among middle- and upper-class whites.
In addition, the consumption of the fentanyl analgesic has also increased, because it is cheaper and easier to transport, when created in the laboratory. Now, it is much more toxic than morphine and more potent than heroin.
Opiates as an anesthetic for physical and emotional pain
One of the causes of this opiate epidemic is related to the misuse of prescription opiates, such as oxycodone and other analgesics. Three out of four heroin users started taking prescription opioids as analgesics.
Several states have sued pharmaceutical companies for allegedly encouraging the use of this type of medication, in addition to influencing doctors. However, it is true that health professionals are increasingly reluctant to prescribe this type of medication.
“Lack of public health, psychiatric problems in a large number of adolescents and young people, endless waiting lists of very painful conditions, lack of tolerance to frustration, previous addiction to opiates, etc. There are many factors responsible for this devastating panorama in the North American population. It seems as if people want to lower the volume of what happens around them unbearable and despite the fatal consequences.”
Thus, while six years ago, 80% of overdose deaths were due to the prescription of opioid medications, almost half of the current deaths are due to heroin and fentanyl.
On the other hand, there are more than two million people dependent on this type of substance. In fact, Donald Trump, president of the USA. US, declared the opioid crisis as a public health emergency in October of 2017.
Heroin in the US: devastating effects across the country
Obama also fought against the excessive consumption of painkillers during his years as president. For this, he requested a reduction of prescription opioids, but addicted people resorted to Mexican heroin.
In Cabell County, West Virginia (USA), one in ten babies is born dependent on opioids. In Florida, one of the states hardest hit by the plague, more than 4,000 people died in 2016 from overdoses related to opiates, according to unofficial preliminary estimates.
In West Virginia, about 780 million analgesics were sold between 2007 and 2012. That’s 421 pills per person, according to a survey conducted by the American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). For its part, the big pharmaceutical companies join and refute these accusations.
In other states like Maryland, special funds have been unlocked, normally reserved for natural disasters. In Kentucky they have rescuers, police and even ordinary citizens to fight overdoses. In fact, in this state, if a job is offered, but a toxicological test is requested, many of the potential candidates end up not showing up.
As we see, the consequences of the opiate epidemic for American society are dramatic.
Change of perspective in dealing with the opiate epidemic
Following in the wake of the battle of the nineties against tobacco companies, several states have sued some pharmaceutical companies, as we mentioned earlier.
This new demographic profile has had a positive consequence, since parents and families of drug users are much more involved and equipped. In some way, it has been possible for the authorities to respond with an attitude of greater understanding about the situation.
15% of the budget to combat the problem would be aimed at “harm reduction”. This facilitates access to clean syringes and Naloxone, the medication that can save the lives of people who are overdosed.