Guest Post: The Opioid Epidemic as Experienced By a College Student

My fellow millennials and I have never experienced a draft. We have never been shipped off to a foreign country to risk our lives for a cause unknown. We haven’t lost fathers, brothers, and sons to bloodshed, thousands of miles overseas. But we are at war. Not with another country, but with a silent killer, taking the lives of thousands, right here on our own turf. Our enemy is stealthy; taking people in the dead of night. Left and right, people are dying. One day they’re there, the next they’re not. No, they are not in Vietnam. They are not in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are upstairs, lifeless in their own beds. They are outside on the porch, cold as ice. Our brothers, mothers, sisters, friends, are dropping like flies to the deadliest killer America has ever seen within its borders: heroin.

My name is Sarah. I’m a 19 year-old college student. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, the heroin capital of the world. For the majority of my life, I lived sheltered from the horrors of the epidemic. However, as I got older, people in my life began to fall victim to the temptations of the drug. By the time I got to college, some of my friends were experimenting, while others were sucked into the whirlpool of heroin and opioid use. This school year, I’ve lost several friends to overdoses. Their use turned into abuse, and the abuse ended in death, all within a matter of months. In October of 2016, my friend was found dead, outside on his steps, a needle still in his arm. I had known him since middle school, but I never had the chance to say goodbye. His family tried to hide the cause of death, but everyone knew he fell victim to the silent killer. He was 19 years old. In January, one of my fellow students was found in his apartment, dead, after being saved from overdosing by paramedics many times in the last few months of his life. Heroin won that battle as well.

As a political science major, the nature of war is fascinating. We are always reading about why it starts, how it escalates, and why it ends. We look at case studies from all over the world, from all different time periods to answer these questions. But this war that we are currently fighting is unique. We cannot visually see our opponent and we cannot gauge their next move. There was no formal declaration of war. We cannot come to the negotiating table with the leaders of our enemy. And this is a war we are losing.

There is extensive evidence of our losses. For the first time in over a decade, the United State’s life expectancy rate has come to a screeching halt, and even a slight decline. This is unprecedented in the developed world. With modern medicine, the average life expectancy has only increased over the last few decades, while the death rate decreased. According to a National Public Radio article published in December of 2016, the last time the United States saw the life expectancy rate decrease was in 1993 due to the AIDS epidemic. However, in 2015, the death rate increased from 724.6 per 100,000 people to 733.1 per 100,000 people.

In December 2016, the Center for Disease Control published data on overdose deaths involving opioids in the United States. The graph below shows the dramatic increase in overdose deaths by category from 2000 to 2015. In this data, the CDC looked at four main categories. The purple line represents the increase in opioid related deaths from natural opioid analgesics, including morphine and codeine, and semi-synthetic opioid analgesics, including drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone. The gray line shows the relative decrease in deaths involving Methadone, a synthetic opioid. Although deaths involving methadone have decreased, deaths by other synthetic opioid analgesics, including fentanyl and tramadol has skyrocketed since 2013. Heroin surpassed natural and semi-synthetic opioid deaths in 2015 due to its relatively low price compared to other drugs within the data.

Overdose Deaths Involving Opioids, US 2000-2015

By the end of 2015, there were nearly 22,000 overdose deaths caused by prescription opioids in the United States. This is equivalent to around 62 deaths every single day. As shown on the graph, specific opioids have been the culprit of more deaths than others. However, as reflected in the green line, the number of all opioid related overdoses has increased tremendously since 2000. According to the CDC, opioid deaths have quadrupled since 1999. They claim, “... prescription opioids continue to be involved in more overdose deaths than any other drug, and all the numbers are likely to underestimate the true burden given the large proportion of overdose deaths where the type of drug is not listed on the death certificate.” In other words, the data collected most likely reflects numbers that are below the actual true value of number of opioid deaths in America per year.

The numbers highlight one main cause of this rapid increase: Fentanyl. In this data analysis, the CDC states:

It is presumed that a large proportion of the increase in deaths is due to illegally-made fentanyl. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is legally made as a pharmaceutical drug to treat pain, or illegally made as a non-prescription drug and is increasingly used to intensify the effects (or “high”) of other drugs, such as heroin. The findings show that two distinct but interconnected trends are driving America’s opioid overdose epidemic: a 15-year increase in deaths from prescription opioid overdoses, and a recent surge in illicit opioid overdoses driven mainly by heroin and illegally-made fentanyl. Both of these trends continued in 2015.
— Centers For Disease Control, December 2016

Millennials have experienced more death in the absence of a war than most young adults in previous generations. As shown by the evidence above, this is truly an uphill battle, and as of right now, it is only getting worse. However, there is hope. Some may call it fighting fire with fire, but there is a force combating addiction. And not only is it a major player in this war, it is going on the offense. Treatments like Suboxone may be the only solution to bringing opioid addiction to the negotiating table. Although we will not be able to bring back the fallen soldiers, we can prevent thousands of more mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters from becoming casualties of the deadly war against opioid addiction.