The opioid epidemic is a problem quickly shifting to the forefront of American consciousness, but it seems many people fail to grasp the breadth of the issue and just how close to home it truly is.
For many people, the word “opioid” conjures up television images of too-skinny junkies in filthy rooms, or delinquent teenagers raiding mom’s medicine drawer. But these images are of addiction in its full swing. In many cases, it looks different at first –it looks like your loved one taking their prescribed pain medication. And for some, this reality is a hard pill to swallow.
You can see the evidence of this in the comments of any article or awareness piece on prescription opioid addiction – there’s always at least one person who’s asking why the focus is on people with chronic pain rather than on “the real addicts.” When people mention “real addicts,” they’re usually talking about people who are abusing heroin or other illegal opioids. But the truth is, 80% of people with heroin addictions started by abusing prescription drugs, and 21 to 29% of people prescribed opioids will abuse them.
Opponents of opioid restrictions argue that it’s wrong to target those who use prescription opioids to combat chronic pain. And yes, it’s true that preventing opioid abuse is complicated by their widespread use as pain relievers. But their use as pain relievers started as an effort to prevent the abuse of morphine, another addictive pain reliever. The old medicine was phased out, and the new opioids that we’re familiar with today (Vicodin, Percocet, and hydrocodone) were introduced. Studies performed in the 1990s promised us that these medications were safe and non-addictive. But these studies were performed on the administration of these drugs in hospitals – not on patients prescribed them for at-home use.
Even people who are aware of these facts still feel detached from the issue, because it’s hard to imagine that you or someone you love would suddenly become an “addict.” But addiction doesn’t knock on your door and announce itself, and prescription opioids aren’t that different from illegal versions. Both produce the same high, and they interact with our brains in the same way. It is this similarity, coupled with our dichotomization of illegal v. prescription drugs, which makes them so dangerous – we demonize the illegal versions while remaining willfully blind to the fact that the legality of our prescriptions doesn’t make them any less dangerous. We feel safe taking our prescribed medication because a professional told us it would help us. But the truth is, there is a risk of dependence to many medications, and once dependent, we may excuse our behavior by telling ourselves that it’s safe because it was prescribed to us.
The reason people accuse awareness campaigns of not targeting the “real addicts” is because they don’t want to acknowledge the reality that often, that “real addict” started out as an everyday person prescribed opioids after surgery, or for managing their pain. They aren’t always the dirty, poorly dressed junkie we want to envision them as – they look a whole lot more like us. And often, they look like us even in the grip of full-blown addiction, because people with addictions will go to great lengths to disguise them.
In addition to these misconceptions, there’s a second, just as difficult answer for why prescription users are targeted. If you’ve known an addict (of any kind), you know just how difficult it is to reason with them. Efforts to help them are often rendered useless because the person with the addiction is so controlled by it that they are unable or unwilling to help themselves. And so, awareness campaigns push for prevention, because that’s an easier way to stem the tide.
The misconceptions and lack of caution towards opioids are problems that can only be solved through education and outreach. Hopefully, more successful awareness campaigns can be developed that pierce through the detachment that many feel towards the issue – because the people in the most danger are the ones who believe that their prescription makes them different from people who get addicted.