Prescriptions for painkillers in the United States have nearly tripled in the past two decades and fatal overdoses reached epidemic levels, exceeding those from heroin and cocaine combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
At the same time, the first-ever global analysis of illicit drug abuse, published this month in the British medical journal The Lancet, found that addictions to heroin and popular painkillers, including Vicodin and OxyContin, kill the most people and cause the greatest health burden, compared with illicit drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.
High-income nations, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, had the highest rates of abuse, 20 times greater than in the least affected countries, according to the Lancet study.
In the United States, enough painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around the clock for one month.
Dr. Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, told Al Jazeera that the U.S. is facing a dangerous epidemic of overdoses and addictions related to painkillers. "According to the CDC, this is the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history," he said. "CDC has data demonstrating that around the same time doctors began aggressively prescribing these medications in the late 1990s, there have been parallel increases in rates of addiction."
This is going to be a fairly personal post, as it ties into some discoveries I’ve made about myself since I started drinking alcohol about two months ago. I grew up in an extremely conservative, extremely religious family. My dad is a preacher in a very fundamentalist denomination, and he made it very clear to me from a very young age that if I ever drank alcohol, I was pretty much going to hell since alcohol is a very evil drug that is quite addicting, and once you’re in its clutches, it’s difficult to escape. Basically, touching even one drop of alcohol is not only unwise, but it’s sinful in the extreme.
It’s been a couple of years since I believed that the mere consumption of alcohol was sinful, but I did not really have any opportunity to give drinking a try until I finally moved out on my own a couple of months ago. Since I’ve started drinking, I’ve discovered a couple of things, the chief of which is alcohol does not really change you. It may reveal you, but it doesn’t fundamentally change who you are. The first time I got drunk,* I basically acted like a funny asshole, but without reservations. When I’m sober, I’m often a funny asshole, with very few reservations.
When I drink alone, though, I often become quite introspective, and have a strong desire to write before sobriety chases away my insight. When I’m sober and alone, I still tend to be pretty introspective and I still have a pretty strong desire to write and express my thoughts.
Additionally, I’ve discovered that alcohol is not quite the force of destruction that many hyper-conservative religious folks claim it to be. I still show up to work on time and work as hard as I can for my boss. I still take my responsibilities seriously and carry out my duties as best I can. I pay my bills in full and on time. I take care of my possessions, manage a budget, cook for myself, and basically act like a responsible adult. Clearly, alcohol is not destroying my life. I don’t drink all that often, and when I do I don’t drink all that much, at least generally speaking. I don’t think I’m an addict, but if I am, I’m the world’s most functional addict.
The point I’m getting at in all this is that America’s so-called “drug problem” is really more of a spiritual problem. If it’s true that alcohol doesn’t change you, and if it’s true that it’s possible to live like a responsible adult while still drinking regularly, then ultimately the reason why people have such problems when drinking is because they simply have problems in the first place, and alcohol only exacerbates the issue. Basically, alcohol is just a crutch. The same is true for other drugs. If you use drugs to dull the pain of your life, or to forget problems in your childhood, then ultimately the problem isn’t drugs.
I find it telling that America has an increasing problem with drugs as it becomes increasingly irreligious. While the connection between the two variables seems obvious to me, I will concede that it may simply be correlation. However, I do suspect it is the case that there are a lot of hurt, angry, dysfunctional people in America whose only chance to move beyond the pain is through mind-altering drugs and medication. They need a crutch, and doctors are only too happy to prescribe one for them. Instead of the constructive crutch of religion, though, many are now opting for the destructive crutch of mind-altering drugs. Instead of getting a prescription from the Great Physician, they seek a prescription from their general practitioner.
I believe it was Marx who called religion the “opiate of the people.” In this post-religious America, though, the people no longer have religion. Thus, they opt for opium instead.
* The only reason I got drunk in the first place was because a gay designer kept buying me shots of Fireball. He eventually propositioned me (and I declined), and then I ended up calling one woman a bitch, though I still got a goodbye hug from her, and then later I propositioned the waitress. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but at least I have another cool story to tell people.