Opioids are narcotic drugs that affect the nervous system and act as a pain reliever. They include synthetic or partly synthetic drugs that mimic opiates, such as heroin. Common prescription opioids include codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine and oxycodone. While opioids are a common and effective method of treating severe and chronic pain, long term use and abuse can lead to addiction, physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms. Opioids are some of the most commonly abused drugs worldwide, with user numbers exceeding those of cocaine and ecstasy.
In recent years, the United States has seen an increase in deaths related to heroin and prescription opioid abuse. This spike in the use of heroin and abuse of prescription opioids has led many to claim that the U.S. is currently going through a heroin and opioid epidemic. However, a recent Statista survey found that a surprising 27 percent of respondents stated they had heard of opioids but were not sure exactly what they are. Access to cheap heroin and the ease of receiving prescriptions for opioids have been seen as causes of the epidemic. The similarity between heroin and opioids also encourages addicts to use these two drugs as alternatives for each other; when an opioid addict finds it difficult to receive a prescription for opioids, heroin can provide a cheap and accessible alternative.
A recent survey from 2016 found 17.5 percent of individuals 12 years and older in the U.S. felt it was easy to obtain heroin, compared to 16.1 percent in 2015. Although the dangers of heroin use are well known, the number of people who try heroin for the first time every year has increased in recent years. In 2016, an estimated 948,000 people in the U.S. consumed heroin in the past year, over double the number that was recorded in 2005.
As opioids are used for medical purposes, they can be easier to obtain than other drugs and the associated dangers often misjudged. A Statista survey from 2017 found that a majority of opioid consumption was for post-surgical pain. The estimated number of people who use opioids for nonmedical purposes is much higher than that of recreational heroin use. One survey found that in 2017, 26 percent of respondents aged 45 to 64 years personally knew someone who abused opioids.
Solutions to tackling the U.S.’s heroin and opioid crises include limiting prescriptions of opioids and improving access to care for those with substance abuse problems. Many believe the federal government and state governments are not doing enough to combat these problems, while others blame the users and patients themselves. Interestingly, one study found that the percentage of people who abused their opioid prescription was almost double in states prohibiting medical marijuana, compared to states that permitted marijuana for medical purposes.
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