Generally, the most dangerous thing we do day-to-day is driving. In America, 38,680 people died from car crashes in 2020.
While driving is relatively dangerous, another killer has gripped America for decades: the opioid crisis. The number of deaths from overdoses on opioids is nearly double that of car crashes in 2020. And the numbers are only climbing.
Since 1999, over 500,000 have died from overdosing on opioids.
The opioid epidemic rips families apart and destroys people’s lives. It can affect everyone, everywhere, even people raised in secure and loving households.
The US Council of Economic Advisors estimated that the opioid crisis has cost America $2.5 trillion over four years.
Like poison, opioids pervade America’s bloodstream, and it’s gotten worse during COVID.
What are opioids?
Opioids refer to a broad range of drugs. Originally, the drugs came from the opium poppy plant, though they can now be produced synthetically.
Common forms of opioids include:
- Fentanyl (Actiq, Abstral, Duragesic, Fentora)
- Hydrocodone (Hysingla, Zohydro ER)
- Oxycodone (Oxaydo, OxyContin)
- Oxycodone and acetaminophen (Percocet, Roxicet)
These drugs, prescribed and applied properly, can change people’s lives for the better. Many people take opioids carefully, and it helps them overcome intense chronic pain, like that experienced from chemotherapy.
In any context, though, some risk exists because of opioids’ strongly addictive properties.
This video explains the nature of opioids and the science behind opioid addiction:
The basics are this: using opioids inhibits pain receptors and can stimulate euphoric highs, with the potential to create a physical and psychological dependency. Over time, the body builds resistance, which makes higher doses necessary to achieve highs—or even to maintain a feeling of normalcy.
People not only become addicted because of the feelings associated with taking them, but their body also becomes physically dependent. Sudden abstinence (quitting cold turkey) can cause immense suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
Opioids mimic love
It seems that the sense of euphoria neurologically relates to our feelings of love. Our opioid system in our body is associated with “warmth, safety, and love” according to Steven Chang, an associate professor of neuroscience at Yale.
Maia Szalavitz writes for the New York Times about her experience being hooked on heroin. In her case, it wasn’t the happiness that sucked her in; it was the “relief from my dread and anxiety, and a soothing sense that I was safe, nurtured and unconditionally loved.”
The isolation during the pandemic likely contributed to this skyrocketing problem. Anyone can see the draw of addicts to the drug if they feel alone or despondent. We can empathize with drug abusers who use it to keep those feelings of love, especially if they come from a broken place.
Tragically, babies born to mothers dependent on opioids will be born addicted to opioids and face extreme developmental challenges.
The introduction of illicit fentanyl, which is fifty times more potent than heroin, has made drug trafficking easier and only worsened the problem.
Who’s to blame for the crisis?
Legal opioids received FDA approval for pain relief and became a multi-billion dollar industry. Pause and think about every time you go to the pharmacy and the high cost of medicine without insurance. Now multiply that times hundreds of millions.
That is the industry money we’re discussing.
In the ’90s, doctors were being pressured to provide opioids with more prescriptions for pain relief. At that key moment, several companies, the main one being Purdue Pharmaceuticals, began selling their opioids like OxyContin.
These pharmaceutical companies spent $40 million between 2013 and 2015 advertising to doctors. They had hundreds of traveling salesmen who would pitch their opioid drugs and encourage doctors to prescribe them. All the while, the pharmaceutical companies intentionally underplayed the drugs’ addictive nature.
Because of the lack of responsibility and lack of regulation, several ridiculous cases showed the epidemic’s widespread nature.
According to a government report on the opioid threat in Pennsylvania, “The total dosage units of oxycodone and hydrocodone products dispensed in 2017 equates to approximately 32 dosage units for every Pennsylvanian.” In other words, so many prescriptions for opioids were filled in Pennsylvania that there were thirty-two doses for every single citizen of Pennsylvania.
In one West Virginia county of 91,000 people, approximately one in ten people are believed to be opioid-dependent.
At this point, the issue becomes a blame game.
Are drug abusers, the FDA, pharmacies, pharmaceutical companies, scientists, or doctors responsible?
Of course, the individual’s decision to escape life’s hardships through drugs, prescription or illicit, is a sin itself. But many people unintentionally become addicted through doctors’ prescriptions.
The problem at every level is apparent.
What’s being done now?
What is so frustrating is that the FDA, the public, and the government as a whole have been aware of this crisis for decades. Purdue pleaded guilty to charges of “misbranding” back in 2007. But, given their exorbitant profits, the fine amounted to a slap on the wrist, and Purdue continued doing business as before.
Now, Purdue has filed for bankruptcy in the face of thousands of lawsuits, agreeing to dole out approximately $10 billion, with the Sacklers (the billionaire family who owns Purdue) paying out $4.5 billion. Purdue will dissolve as a company and the money will go toward fighting the epidemic. The company pleaded guilty to providing illegal kickbacks to doctors and “conspiracy to defraud the United States.”
Johnson & Johnson has similarly agreed to pay $26 billion over time to end opioid lawsuits. Other pharmaceutical companies are being held accountable at some level.
The Sacklers have come under intense scrutiny for their role in the opioid epidemic. They will probably go on relatively unaffected by the massive settlement since billions of their personal wealth sits in offshore accounts. Though their $4.5 billion payment may seem like a large sum, they only have to pay it over a nine-year period, and their estimated worth hovers around $10 billion. They have denied any wrongdoing.
Even some local pharmacies are also being held accountable for overprescribing. A jury found last month that local CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens pharmacies turned a blind eye to suspicious opioid orders in Ohio.
The source of happiness matters
It’s apparent the destruction that drugs wreak on people’s lives when abused. Drugs (even synthetic ones) can have incredible medicinal purposes, but they can also be twisted.
While we should improve the state of things through policy, legal action, prayer, and compassion, this problem will never fully go away.
Filled with love and wisdom, churches should continue to step up and help drug abusers. At the same time, Christians should also keep an open mind to effective ways to move away from addiction. Sudden abstinence may not be the best answer at the start of helping someone. Strategies for loving drug abusers—people whom God desperately loves—should be carefully researched and prayed over.
A drug that provides feelings of comfort and happiness, and maybe even love, will always pull some people into addiction. For a Christian, even if we were to perfectly replicate happiness in our brains with drugs, it matters that the source of that joy doesn’t come from reality.
We don’t draw our source of truth from feelings, but from God (John 14:6; John 8:32). False feelings don’t satisfy our longing for God, nor will they stand forever as God does.
Going to God and finding community in the gathering of believers will satisfy that longing security. But even church, friends, and family can burn us. So, God must remain our ultimate, final source of comfort. Consider this well-known psalm:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”Psalm 23:1–4
God is our true source of strength and joy.
If you or a loved one are addicted to opioids, there is always hope for redemption.