Drug Addiction & the Opioid Crisis: Facts We Need to Face

While reading a recent article in The New Yorker about Chris Christie and the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which he chairs, I was struck by one particular quote. An expert, called upon to testify as to the nature of America’s increasingly dire opioid crisis, informed the Commission that “We can’t incarcerate our way out of the overdose epidemic, which now kills more Americans than car accidents or gun homicide.”

The Facts About Opioid Addiction

“Really?” I thought. “Opioid addiction is causing more deaths than car accidents or gun homicide?” It seems unbelievable. But when I dug into the data, I found that the facts are worse than I ever imagined. These are death statistics for some of the top killers of Americans in 2015:

  • Drug Overdose – 52,404
  • Auto Accident – 38,300
  • Gun Death (Suicide) – 21,175
  • Gun Death (Homicide) – 11,208

The number of drug-related deaths, provided by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, paint a truly dire picture of the reality of escalating prescription drug abuse in the United States. As ASAM reports, “Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US… (and) opioid abuse is driving this epidemic…” Additionally, “From 1999 to 2008, overdose death rates, sales and substance use disorder treatment admissions related to prescription pain relievers increased in parallel.”

The facts and figures don’t lie – America is in the grip of an epidemic. But where is the outrage? Where is the urgency? Where is the will to fix this?

The Mass Killer We’re Meeting With a Shrug

A recent, grim New York Times article, entitled “Opioids, a Mass Killer We’re Meeting With a Shrug”, notes that “About as many Americans are expected to die this year of drug overdoses as died in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. For more than 100 years, death rates have been dropping for Americans — but now, because of opioids, death rates are rising again. We as a nation are going backward, and drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.”

While the roots of this growing problem have been debated back and forth for years, what I find most stunning is the lack of discussion about a solution to the problem. As the expert quoted by The New Yorker exhorted, incarceration is not the solution. As Nicholas Kristof writes in the Times, “It should be a national scandal that only 10 percent of Americans with opioid problems get treatment.”

Prevention and treatment must be placed at the forefront of our efforts to combat this crisis in American public health. We must, as a country, face the facts about the situation that we are in and hold ourselves and our lawmakers accountable for taking steps toward providing a comprehensive solution that serves all Americans. The first step is educating ourselves about the reality of the opioid epidemic that surrounds us.

I, for one, was astounded by what I found. I hope that by confronting the facts we can shake ourselves from our collective complacency and begin the necessary work of advocating for the many lives and families in the grip of this crisis.

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