One of the biggest crises facing our country is the heroin epidemic that is destroying communities across the nation. The for-profit American healthcare system and the devious machinations of pharmaceutical companies have flooded our nation with widely available and extremely powerful painkillers, which form dangerously addictive habits that are notoriously difficult to break. To put in perspective, America has 5% of the world’s population but consume 75% of all the prescription pain pills in the world.
When the sources of those painkillers dry up, opioid addicts turn to heroin to get their fix – a cheaper and much more destructive alternative. 75% of all heroin users used painkiller pills before turning to the needle, and the Central for Disease Control (CDC) reported that people who used painkillers were 40% more likely to abuse heroin. The link between the two is clear – and the need for a new approach to the drug war has never been clearer.
Progressive champion Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MASS) is spearheading a new initiative to find alternative ways of treatment and to offer relief to addicts. She recently wrote a letter to the CDC asking them to “to explore every opportunity and tool available to work with states and other federal agencies on ways to tackle the opioid epidemic and collect information about alternative pain relief options” – crucially, asking specifically for them to investigate the potential value of medical marijuana and what effects legalization would have on the crisis.
While archaic and political nonstarter government regulations prevent substantial research into the use of marijuana, researchers have already determined that there is a significant connection between legalization and lower rates of heroin overdose, deaths from which have quadrupled since 2000 and claim thousands of lives every year. ThinkProgress reports that:
A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, for example, found that states that legalized medical marijuana from 1999 to 2010 also saw significantly fewer deaths from painkiller overdoses in that time than researchers had predicted. Cannabis is also an established solution – for many patients – to the exact sorts of chronic pain issues that have helped drive the increase in opioid prescriptions, which roughly doubled in popularity among U.S. doctors from 2000 to 2010.
Politicians are grasping around for solutions, and the differences between the two parties couldn’t be clearer. The right-wing refuses to budge from the criminality approach of the Reagan era that led to mass incarceration and the disenfranchisement of a generation of young African-Americans, and refuses to place any blame with the pharmaceutical industry which pressures doctors into over-prescribing these highly addictive pills to people who don’t really need them.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump blames the Mexicans and believes building walls on the border will solve the crisis; Maine’s increasingly deranged Governor Paul LePage blames black drug dealers and openly called for their public execution. However, actual scientists and people of coherent thought find this alarmingly counterproductive. “That’s ridiculous. We need to prevent people from getting addicted and be more cautious prescribing [painkillers]. Heroin will just keep flooding in. If it’s not coming in through Mexico, you’ll have more Fentanyl labs popping up in the U.S. It’s become more available because there’s a demand for it” rightly observed Andrew Kolodny, Chief Medical Officer for the national addiction treatment nonprofit Phoenix House.
It’s hard to find someone in this country who doesn’t know someone close to them who has struggled with, or even died from, opioid addiction. We need to start taking the right steps and thinking outside box to deal with this crisis, and we need leaders like Senator Warren to lead the way for us if we are going to cure ourselves of this habit.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.