Slowly, but surely, health care and community activists in our area are making strides in the fight against addiction to opioid pain relievers. We don’t need to recount the devastation that these medications have wreaked on American society— that’s been well-documented over the past few years, as entire communities, and even whole states in some cases, have fallen under the spell of these highly addictive drugs.
Behind it all has been an unholy alliance of physicians, misled by the pharmaceutical companies, prescribing dangerous drugs; black market suppliers who keep the drugs flowing when prescriptions aren’t available; insurance companies who made these prescription drugs cheaper to obtain than non-addictive alternatives; and a domestic pharmaceutical industry that was more than happy to profit off the misery. Add to that a Congress that has been willing to look the other way as long as the drug companies kept the campaign cash flowing.
As with so many things, it’s been the people in the communities hard hit by opiate addiction who have finally begun the hard work of fixing the problem. At a forum on the Vermilion Reservation last week (see story page 1), Bois Forte health officials talked about some of the steps now being taken to try to help those who already suffer from opioid addiction and how to slow the rate of new addiction.
It starts most often in the doctor’s office, where Bois Forte Health Services has now sharply-curtailed the use of opiate-based pain relievers for its patients. That’s a significant step when you consider that fully 60 percent of addicts get hooked as a result of doctor-prescribed pain relief. In too many hospitals and clinics, opiates are still routinely prescribed, with little explanation or follow-up. It’s understandable that doctors wish to relieve pain in their patients, but when the risk of addiction is as high as it is, health care providers need to take much greater care. Leaving a patient addicted is a failure of the practice of medicine. By giving health providers the tools to offer alternative treatments for chronic pain, including non-medicine-based treatments, more patients will have the opportunity to resume their normal everyday activities.
The growing availability of Narcan (naloxone) by emergency responders, other health care providers, and even family members is also helping. While Narcan doesn’t reverse addiction, it does offer an effective antidote in overdoses, which are far too common, especially with the growing problem of fentanyl-laced drugs.
Education and awareness are also helping to alert the public to the risks associated with opioid use. Education is always the key. Few people want to become addicted and lose control over their life. When people understand the dangers, they’re much more likely to avoid behaviors that can lead to problems. The success of education programs to curb smoking are a key example.
The current overall approach to the opioid crisis is the right one, with the focus on education, treatment, and use reduction. Indeed, that’s the most effective approach to all drug abuse challenges. Imagine how much worse the opiate problem would be had public officials responded with a criminalization approach, as America has done with other drugs? Education and treatment dollars would have been lost to law enforcement and corrections, and criminal gangs would be profiting as addicts turned exclusively to them for their supply. As history has shown, a “war on drugs” is bound to fail. The efforts to respond to the opioid epidemic will hopefully provide a roadmap to a saner overall policy for combating drug abuse in America.