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“In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threaten us,” said the Governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, on January 8th of this year. In his headline making speech, the governor devoted his entire 34-minute state of the state of the address to a crisis of addiction that he referred to as “bubbling just beneath the surface.”
The number of deaths due to fatal heroin overdoses in the state almost doubled in the last year. This trend, according to the White House’s Office of National Drug Policy, is not unique to Vermont.
Between 1999 and 2010, there has been a 45 percent increase in the number of deaths from heroin nationwide.
From Prescription Pain Pills to Heroin Addiction
Opiate based medications, drugs like oxycontin and hydrocodone, are painkillers often prescribed to those recovering from surgery or to patients who have suffered a severe physical injury. The downside to these prescriptions is that in some cases users can unintentionally become addicted.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2010, 12 million people admitted to using painkillers non-medically, after their prescription ran out or without a prescription at all. For those addicted to opiate painkillers, heroin is often cheaper and easier to obtain after access to prescription medication has dried up.
In an interview on PBS, Ryan Grim, The Huffington Post’s Washington bureau chief and author of the book “This is Your Country On Drugs,” spoke about the growing problem. “Whether these were legitimate addicts or what to begin with, they’re addicts now. They go out and find heroin, they are inexperienced users, and it is a terrible combination.”
From Heroin Addiction to Prison
In his speech, Governor Shumlin stated that 80 percent of Vermont’s prison population is either jailed because of their addiction to opiates or are currently addicted.
In a later interview, he pointed out that the demographic for this crisis isn’t just those living in poverty. “…it also afflicts people who have huge opportunity and who are wealthy. So it crosses all economic lines.”
The statistics, nationwide, on inmates serving time related to non-violent, opiate related crimes are difficult to decipher. There are, however, several staggering facts:
- Since 1980, and the beginning of the “war on drugs,” those serving time for drug offenses has increased twelvefold.
- 22 percent of all state and federal inmates, in 2000, were convicted on drug charges.
- Of the 3,278 people serving life without parole in 2012 for non-violent crimes, 79 percent of those were for drug related offenses, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report.
- In the United States, more people die from drug overdoses than in motor vehicle accidents.
Addiction isn’t a choice, and many of these cases started with an actual medical need. The social stigma of either serving prison time for opiate related troubles or being labeled a junkie can make it even more difficult for those that need treatment to seek it out.
From Heroin Addiction to Healing
Legislators in most states are seeking to enact laws that will make it tougher to abuse, and hopefully, overdose on prescription painkillers. What many experts are saying, though, is that an attitude change about how to approach this crisis is what’s needed.
“We have got to change our thinking about this disease. It is no different than cancer. It is no different than kidney disease,” says Shumlin. “When you’re sick and you need treatment, you have got to have it available to you.”
While the controversy about how to handle this epidemic rages on, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) went against its own advisors and approved Zohydro ER, a new high-dose narcotic painkiller. This medication will be the first hydrocodone only opioid without any abuse resistant technology, making the potential for addiction even greater.
Attorneys general from 28 states have asked that the FDA reconsider their approval of the medication.
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