It’s hard to imagine that one day the American military machine might finally run up against a war it could not win. The War on Drugs – that venerable campaign popularized by a thousand after-school specials and educational outreach efforts – faltered almost from day one; indeed, as more and more countries look into legalizing pot and marijuana, one might say that the drugs have won. Saying “no to drugs”, in the end, wasn’t much of a defense. But this uptick in drug consumption hasn’t quite led to the weed-based utopia that many internet pundits have imagined either, and to get the gist of what widespread drug abuse can do to communities, look no further than the opioid epidemic.
Pharmaceutical companies must share some of the blame for this problem. Between 1991 and 2011, painkiller prescriptions skyrocketed more than 280 percent due to a variety of factors: an aging population, an increase in work related stress injuries as changing economic trends marked the shift to a more sedentary lifestyle, and the cultural rise of prescription drugs as a be-all-end-all to society’s woes. In any case, painkillers found their way into our lives for the first time, and as with too much of a good thing, people soon discovered that painkillers induced sensation similar to those accessible through recreational drugs.
Part of the reason why this issue has bubbled unchecked for some time is the scope and breadth of where it primarily takes place. While one traditionally associates drug use – and abuse – with the cities and suburbs, the opioid epidemic has hit rural regions the hardest, especially in impoverished Rust Belt counties of the United States.
Opioids mimic our body’s natural supplies of painkillers almost perfectly; when we take them, we’re tricking our body into thinking that it’s produced an overdose of painkillers all by itself. But our painkillers also provoke a strong dopamine response to which we build up a tolerance, requiring increasingly larger doses to get the high that drug addicts crave. Morphine, for instance, is one of the most common painkillers, but it also carries with it a host of negative effects – they include rashes, dizziness, nausea, constipation, and often death when addicts finally take one hit too many.
So how do we stop the bad parts of the opioids while keeping the good? Obviously part of the problem is the nature of painkillers themselves — they’re addictive, filled with harmful side effects, and potentially lethal. The recent rise in awareness of the opioid epidemic has also led to a major crackdown on future dosages. As a result, people with a legitimate need for painkillers, such as accident victims, are finding themselves treated like potential criminals in the pharmacy queue.
The pharmaceutical company, Trevea, headquartered in Prussia, has accelerated development of what they hope might be the next big painkiller – still packing that painkiller punch but lacking in most of the addictive side effects that kickstarted this whole mess in the first place. Users take the artificial molecule, dubbed “Oliceridine,” intravenously, meaning that it’s not quite as pill-poppable as most conventional painkillers. While it performs admirably at treating light ailments like bunion removal or tummy tuck surgery, it’s still not quite a replacement to the old pills, which can treat heavier problems such as amputations or reconstructive surgery.
Other pharmaceutical companies are seriously looking into marijuana and other cannabis-based plants; long touted as miracle cure-alls by their proponents, scientists are now conducting more research into their properties. Drugs face a long, uphill climb from the moment of their conception to the time when they can finally be released into the wild. While a cure for the opioid epidemic will be coming, withdrawing entirely from opioids will take time, effort, and dedicated research. Time is running out in the Rust Belt.