If nothing is done, we can expect a lot of people to die: A forecast by STAT concluded that as many as 650,000 people will die over the next 10 years from opioid overdoses — more than the entire city of Baltimore. The US risks losing the equivalent of a whole American city in just one decade.
That would be on top of all the death that America has already seen in the course of the ongoing opioid epidemic. In 2015, more than 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in America — about two-thirds of which were linked to opioids. The toll is on its way up, with an analysis of preliminary data from the New York Times finding that 59,000 to 65,000 likely died from drug overdoses in 2016.
If you want to understand how we got here, there's one simple explanation: It's much easier in America to get high than it is to get help.
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In talking about this, Brandeis University opioid policy expert Andrew Kolodny draws a comparison to New York City's fight against tobacco. In his telling, the city took a two-prong approach: It made tobacco less accessible — by banning smoking in public spaces and raising taxes to make cigarettes much more expensive. But it also made alternatives to tobacco more accessible — by opening a phone line that people can use to get in touch with a clinic or obtain free nicotine patches or free nicotine gum. It has seen its smoking rate steadily drop, from 21.5 percent in 2002 to 14.3 percent in 2015.
Essentially the opposite has happened with opioids. Over the past couple of decades, the health care system, bolstered by pharmaceutical companies, flooded the US with painkillers. Then illicit drug traffickers followed suit, inundating the country with heroin and other illegally produced opioids that people could use once they ran out of painkillers or wanted something stronger. All of this made it very easy to obtain and misuse drugs.
Meanwhile, there has been little attention to getting people into treatment. According to the surgeon general's 2016 report on addiction, only 10 percent of people suffering from a drug use disorder get specialty treatment. The report attributed the low rate to shortages in the supply of care, with some areas of the country lacking affordable options for treatment — which can lead to waiting periods of weeks or even months just to get help.
When you put these two issues together, you get the recipe for a disaster — one that has been only further accentuated by the socioeconomic and mental health issues that have plagued the US for years.
This is the story of the opioid epidemic: a crisis that has already taken hundreds of thousands of lives, and is likely to kill hundreds of thousands more over at least the next decade if nothing is done.