America’s longest war, the war on drugs, has been lost. The opioid epidemic for years has shifted the lives of countless individuals and has continued to worsen during the COVID-19 pandemic, hitting a record high of overdoses.
Overdose deaths skyrocketed at the start of the pandemic amid universal isolation and financial stress; it has continued to remain high as synthetic opioids, including Fentanyl, have left no community in the country untouched. Here’s what you need to know about the crisis and how it began.
Before it took the lives of more than 90,000 victims in 2020 alone, opium was once used with infants in the 17th century. Known as the father of pediatrics, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi known as Rhazes in the west, had colossal influence in the development of medical practice in Europe and America today. One of those developments was treatment with opium, as it was recommended by al-Razi and several other world-leading medical experts. During the period of an infant’s teething, opium would be used as a pain reliever. Doctors at the time would also use morphine as a speedy recovery drug without alerting patients of the high risk for addiction and dependence. After the civil war, America would quickly face its first drug epidemic as the war was thought to be an igniter for drug abuse. As a result, millions of opium pills were issued to Union soldiers, which eventually left many to go back home after the war addicted. Doctors failed to see the dependence on the drugs and only saw the quick recovery from them.
In 1895, roughly 1 in 200 Americans were heavily influenced by opium. Unregulated trade, along with a combination of poor government restrictions and knowledge, allowed for the upper class to become addicted, mainly white women who used morphine for menstrual cramps. It wouldn’t be until the creation of aspirin that led the medical industry to prescribe less opium. Additionally, the stigma of prescribing opium finally caught doctors’ notice, which also led fewer patients to addiction.
In the 1900s, laws were established along with the nation’s first Opium Commissioner, Hamilton Wright, who accurately described Americans as “the greatest drug fiends in the world.” At the turn of the century, the appearance of addicts changed from the white aging prosperous to a younger and more diverse audience. Flushed by racism, the treatment of addicts began to change from nursing the abused to casting them off entirely. Prison became the cost of entry for Chinese immigrants in America smoking opium. The narcotic clinics operating to support victims were closed down, and the government, along with the wealthy, affiliated the use to low-life connotations.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, America’s medical industry learned from its incidental mistakes; the pharmaceutical industry eased in and sold its morals for capitalist profits over the well-being of millions. Consequently, doctors were bought and pressured to prescribe opioids, a low-cost remedy to produce the default treatment for pain. The medical practice was held to a different standard all over the country based on the demographic and political beliefs running the state. It wasn’t immigrants or Black populated urban communities promoting these drugs within the nation, but drug corporations, doctors, and pharmacists working together to hold individuals from their goals.
The war on drugs was angled to keep race in the conversation and keep those actually responsible outside of the public’s view. Drug-related crimes are the most popular reason for imprisonment, and the United States has the planet’s highest prison population, with almost 2.1 million people. Studies have continued to expose that imprisonment does not reduce struggles with drugs. Last year drug overdose deaths reached a record high. However, this came to no surprise; since 2015, the percentage of all U.S. deaths attributed to overdoses has grown from 1.9 percent to 2.8 percent.
Last year, 28 states saw drug overdose deaths increase by more than 30 percent as synthetic opioids like Fentanyl have continued to be sold in the market. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and, when illegally made, can be mixed with heroin or cocaine. Recreational drugs can also be laced with Fentanyl leaving street buyers with severe respiratory distress and death. The gap between demographics has narrowed over the last few years as all demographic groups encountered more overdose deaths in 2020.
Addiction is a preventable disease. With the appropriate resources and the appropriate handling of those resources, recovery is completely possible. Too many lives have been lost for progress not to have developed. If you or a loved one has been struggling with addiction, know that you are not alone and support is available. Click here for a complete and up-to-date source of drug information.
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