U.S. Opioid Epidemic
Opioids are drugs, such as morphine and heroin, that are naturally derived from the opium poppy plant. They are also a class of strong painkillers that are human-made to mimic the sedative effects of those plant-derived drugs. Common names are fentanyl, OxyContin, and Vicodin. Opioids are prescribed for short term acute pain relief for conditions such as cancer pain, end-of-life care, dentistry and post-surgery care. At lower doses, opioids may make users feel sleepy, but higher doses can slow breathing and heart rate, which can lead to death. In 2019, nearly 50,000 people in the United States died from opioid-involved overdoses.
Starting in the late 1990s, there was a rapid growth in the use of prescription opioids. Once touted as the non-addictive treatment for pain, these drugs were later found to be highly addictive and often led to widespread misuse—these facts minimized by pharmaceutical companies for years. Opioid deaths tripled from 2000 to 2015.
Women—due to factors such as chronic conditions, domestic abuse, and childbirth pain—and adolescents—in part due to sports injuries and dental surgeries—are more likely to be prescribed opioids. Adolescents and young adults are especially susceptible to the effects of opioids because of their undeveloped frontal cortex.
Attention to this epidemic has focused primarily on White suburban and rural communities. Less attention has focused on Black and brown communities which are similarly experiencing dramatic increases in opioid misuse and overdose deaths. The rate of increase among Black and brown populations from drug overdose deaths between 2015-2016 was 40 percent compared to the overall population increase at 21 percent.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.