Americans’ abuse of painkillers has reached “epidemic” levels, according to the CDC. USA Today reports:
Use of narcotic painkillers, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, has also grown. In 1999, 5% of adults 20 and older reported using a narcotic painkiller. Four years later, that number grew to 7%, where it has remained, Sales of the drugs quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, the report said. […]In 2012, 16,007 people died from overdoses involving opioid painkillers, triple the number who died in 1999, a 5% decrease from 2011 when 16,917 people died, the CDC reported last year.
Of course, some of this use may be legitimate, involving people who are seriously injured or otherwise need painkillers. But when you look at these numbers in light of general data about prescription drug use, they look less benign. For example, according to the White House, “nearly one-third of people aged 12 and over who used drugs for the first time in 2009 began by using a prescription drug non-medically” and “over 70 percent of people who abused prescription pain relievers got them from friends or relatives.”Painkillers aren’t the only drug devastating the country, as a recent NYT story on heroin use in Vermont shows. After announcing that the state was experiencing a “‘full-blown heroin crisis,” Governor Peter Shumlin launched an aggressive campaign to help treat addicts. The NYT argues that the campaign has been successful in some ways, but deaths due to heroin in the state are still climbing, with 66 percent more people dying in 2014 from heroin use than in 2013.The country is currently caught up in a debate about marijuana legalization, but these stories show how complex and multifaceted the drug problem in America is. Painkillers are legal—but their legal status hasn’t reversed the abuse outlined in USA Today. As WRM pointed out in a classic essay on the drug war, “Some of the most widely abused addictive drugs in the US today are available by prescription; that system has stimulated the black market in drugs like Oxycontin rather than closing it down.” (This seems to be happening with marijuana, as well.) And then there is heroin—should that be legal? It’s hardly clear how that would save the Vermonters dying from it. It’s necessary to end the drug war in its current form, but things are likely to get worse for Americans in some ways—or, at the least, no better—when we do.