Is There a Solution to America’s Opioid Crisis?

As anyone in staffing, recruiting, or hiring knows all too well, one of the top recruiting obstacles isn’t so much generating interest in the position. No, that part is relatively easy, especially if you’re paying a competitive wage. Often the hardest part, sadly, is getting the candidates you’ve carefully recruited at great expense to pass a simple drug test!

Despite society’s best efforts, including a decades-long “War on Drugs” that has seen prison populations skyrocket, the problem of drug use continues to grow and expand into segments of society that would have been unheard of even a decade or two ago.

And sadly, even “passing” a drug test doesn’t necessarily mean one is free of the effects of mind-altering drugs. Because by “drug use” we no longer just mean marijuana, cocaine, or even meth, the illegal “bad drugs.” These days, an exponentially growing number of drug addicts aren’t just running the “mean streets” of Philly or Compton, but rather are leading middle-class lives, working jobs, getting their kids to and from school, going to church, and going deeper and deeper into debt and criminality by doing whatever it takes to get that next high.

They, and millions of others like them, are addicted to prescription painkillers.

In an article entitled “American Carnage: The New Landscape of Opioid Addiction,” Weekly Standard Senior Editor Christopher Caldwell describes an unprecedented wave of opioid and heroin abuse that took two-thirds of the 52,000 Americans who died of drug overdoses in 2015 alone, more than those who died from car accidents and gun homicides combined, and 91 people per day. The problem is so rampant that one Brown University epidemiologist calculates that 2 percent of the population of Rhode Island, or 20,000 people, are opioid addicts.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson features Caldwell’s work in his series “Drugged: Inside Americas Opioid Crisis.” The first segment highlights a problem so vast that the number of doses in several states, including New Hampshire, is higher than the population as a whole.

Caldwell describes a time when opiates and opioids (a synthetic drug that mimics opium) were considered taboo, the realm of easing the suffering of cancer patients and those on death’s door. But twenty years ago, thanks to the rise of libertarian attitudes about drugs and drug company marketing, the landscape changed.

When Purdue Pharmaceuticals brought an extended release version of the opioid oxycodone, called OxyContin, to the market in 1996, it was supposed to lessen the risk of abuse thanks to the time-release nature of the formula. Except, addicts started dissolving, smashing, or chewing the pills to get the whole load at once. While three Purdue executives did plead guilty to felony misbranding and the company paid $600 million in fines, the problem still remains.

And then, Caldwell notes in his piece, “chronic pain” became a condition in and of itself, instead of just a symptom. It became a fifth vital sign after pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and temperature, and the American Pain Society, funded by the medical companies, actually advertised this fact to doctors.

Caldwell writes:

“Certain doctors, notoriously the anesthesiologist Russell Portenoy of the Beth Israel Medical Center, called for more aggressive pain treatment. We had to destigmatize these drugs, he later told the Wall Street Journal. A whole generation of doctors was schooled in the new understanding of pain. Patients threatened malpractice suits against doctors who did not prescribe pain medications liberally, and gave them bad marks on the patient satisfaction surveys that, in some insurance programs, determine doctor compensation. Today, more than a third of Americans are prescribed painkillers every year.”

Ironically, as opioids became more in demand and taboos lifted, heroin, once a drug of the streets pushed and used by gangsters and drug addicts, became a competitively priced substitute. And by heroin, Caldwell means fentanyl, a synthetic opioid invented in 1959 for end-of-life care that’s fifty times as strong as street heroin.

So, as the AMA increasingly viewed and taught pain as a disease to be treated, Big Pharma cashed in with sky-high profits, and millions of people became drug addicts.

Of course, the last thing any of us who hire for a living want to do is put someone under the influence of ANY drug, illegal or legal, on a potentially-dangerous job site. And for our people who DO get hurt on the job, the last thing we want is for some drug-happy doctor to hook them on narcotics for a wrist sprain!

But what’s the long-term answer? Because the trend certainly seems grim.

Step one, obviously, would be to do what it takes to prevent new people from getting hooked on these drugs to begin with.

That means a major paradigm shift BACK to viewing pain as a symptom rather than a disease itself, and educating doctors AND patients on the fact that non-narcotic pain relievers not only can be just as effective as narcotics, but they don’t come with the risk of addiction. Even if the pain is slightly higher, is the risk of eventually losing everything really worth it?

At the end of his piece, Caldwell acknowledges the effectiveness of societal pressure, mentioning Alcoholics Anonymous as an example. Alcoholics aren’t coddled there, and the “enemy” isn’t sugar-coated.

It’s high time society treated drug addiction similarly, starting with a Big Pharma-funded superfund (like the tobacco superfund) to help addicts quit their addictions cold-turkey instead of trying to wean themselves off with other drugs.

It’s time to treat opioid addition like the public menace that it is, before it’s too late.