The Prescription Opioid Epidemic: History and Potential Solutions


Prescription opioids now account for the majority of overdose deaths. Most are related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and tramadol. This epidemic has resulted in government agencies, public health officials and medical institutions scrambling to find answers to curtail this dangerous trend.

Prescription opioid drugs, when used as prescribed, offer relief from pain. Vicodin and OxyContin are among the two more popular ones. Both of these substances, when misused, are highly addictive. And it’s no surprise therefore, that the abuse of these two drugs have created a widespread epidemic across the nation.  

Here we will explore the prescription opioid epidemic, its inception, effects, and solutions to overcome it.

The Inception of the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic first began in the early 1990’s when medical officials began prescribing opioids for the treatment of pain. Health prescribers claimed that the risk of prescription opioids was very low. Pharmaceutical companies then promoted its availability resulting in flooding the market and creating a huge profit making venture.  During this period, restrictions were lax and no one could foretell or cared to bother monitoring how this would impact society. This resulted in catastrophic consequences in deaths by overdose and a high increase in opioid addiction. Unfortunately, when there is an opportunity to do the right thing, it is often overshadowed by greed and lack of conscience. The addiction business is a huge money making enterprise and decisions are sometimes based on profit rather than the well-being of the individual: the addict thus became the victimized by these policies.       

In 2010, after 20 years of hardship, health and government officials finally came to their senses and knew they had to take drastic measures to offset this epidemic. At this juncture, prescription opioid abuse began to be targeted, making prescription opioids harder to obtain.  Heroin use then reemerged and with it a rapid increase in deaths from heroin abuse. 

To complicate matters, a few years later, fentanyl entered the opioid scene. The rise in overdose deaths rose significantly in 2013 related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. As an opioid, fentanyl is a very effective pain killer used in surgical procedures since it’s actually 100 times more powerful than morphine. In the early 1980’s synthetic fentanyl was produced by black markets and was known as China White which was an alternative to heroin.  Drug dealers recently discovered that combining it with heroin created an even more euphoric high. Since it is relatively cheap to make, it’s no wonder it has escalated the opioid epidemic.      

Prescription Opioids and Addiction

Prescription opioid abuse results in approximately 50 deaths per day in this nation. Prescription opioids are highly addictive and often lead to the use of other drugs. Research indicates that people who have abused prescription opioids are over 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin.

Effects of Prescription Opioids

Two of the main culprits of prescription opioid abuse are Vicodin and OxyContin. The main reason people abuse both these substances is because it provides a very strong sensation of euphoria. A lot of people say the euphoria obtained by abusing Vicodin and OxyContin rivals the euphoria experienced when using heroin. This is something that addicts seek endlessly. While these drugs were intended to be dispensed medically to patients with a prescription, they have become readily available through illegal channels thus creating a black market of their use.

A Solution That Works

The methods employed against the opioid epidemic lack any significant effectiveness. There must be a comprehensive approach to tackle this issue or it will continue to spiral downwards.  Among the various means to combat this epidemic, at the forefront, is medication assisted treatment. Research has proven that it works. While it is arguable that substituting one drug with another is self-defeating, senseless and perpetuating addiction, it is also necessary to see how the benefits of such a strategy works and saves lives in the process. Medication-assisted treatment like Suboxone, Naltrexone and Methadone among addiction patients has cut the mortality rate by half. It has become a forefront weapon in the treatment of opioid addiction.   

Another alternative is using cannabis to treat opioid addiction which counters the euphoric and craving effects of opioids. Medical cannabis is a safer option than opioids as a pain reliever since it has less of a risk in terms of dependency and does not carry the danger of overdosing from it.

In addition, vaccines are being developed to offset and prevent highly addictive drugs like heroin.  While this is nowhere near to be realized, it’s still an exciting proposition to explore.  There must also be an increase in funding to access treatment options. Needless to say, the benefit outweighs the cost.