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Opioids: From our Past to Our Future

Nashua, NH

The opioid epidemic is gripping America at the neck, with overdose deaths almost tripling over just 10 years. In 2020 alone, there were nearly 68,630 deaths due to opioid overdose. This growth is much more significant than that of any other drug, legal or illegal. This rise in deaths is not news to us, as thousands of statistics about these deaths are constantly displayed on news channels, schools, and reports. Yet, these numbers only ever grow higher and higher. Why is this so? And what makes opioids so powerful and deadly?


Examples of different opioids and their method of derivation.

Opioids are derived in 2 ways: being synthesized in a laboratory or extracted from the poppy plant. Those synthesized are called synthetic opioids and nearly 500 different types have been created, such as fentanyl, oxycodone, and methadone. Those derived and refined from poppy plants are called opiates, which include morphine, codeine, and heroin. Regardless of how they are retrieved, they are all a type of narcotic, a category of drug that induces numbness and sleepiness. The numbing effect these drugs have made them an ideal painkiller to prescribe to patients that suffer from severe pain, as well as coughing and diarrhoea. This has not reduced its high addictiveness though. The intense sense of euphoria that most patients have when taking the drug can cause them to misuse their prescriptions, which can lead to the use of illicit opioids such as heroin and fentanyl.

Sumerian god holding poppies in his hand.

Usage of opioids goes as far back as nearly 8000 years ago when Sumerian clay tablets documented prescriptions for patients. It continued to be used throughout history, for its medicinal effects as well as it's high. Many famous people have used these drugs, such as Homer, Franklin, Napoleon, Coleridge, Poe, Shelly, Quincy, and Hitler, and it was used excessively by wounded soldiers during the American Civil, British Crimean, and Prussian French wars. Morphine was first isolated from opium, the original sap of the plant, in 1803 by German scientist Friedrich Sertürner. Even with these developments, they were still only given as the twentieth century went on, to treat post-surgery pain and for those with a terminal illnesses.


In the 1980s, though, the concept of pain being a recognized medical problem started to gain popularity. This was not the case before, as they considered pain more as a symptom than as a condition. In 1995, the American Pain Society, a physicians’ organization in Chicago, Illinois, started a campaign labeling pain as a “fifth vital sign”, comparing it to heart rates and blood pressure. The numbing effects of opioids appealed to this new movement, and an illusion was set of opioids being safer than previously considered. False studies began to spread promoting the safety of opioids, and pharmaceutical companies began to see what a lucrative business prescription opioids are. They began to promote their products heavily to doctors, physicians, and patients and the use of prescription opioids to treat chronic pain skyrocketed.


Rise in opioid overdose deaths

Along with this increase came an increase in deaths by prescription opioids, which lasted from the mid-1990s to 2010. To stop this first wave of deaths, pharmaceutical companies began to restrict the availability of these drugs, hoping it would discourage abuse, which it did. But, most users switched to the more available and cheaper heroin instead, which lead to the second wave. Between 2010 and 2016, deaths from heroin overdoses increased almost fivefold in the United States. Soon, though, dealers began to increase their profits by mixing their heroin with fillers and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, which led to the third and most deadly wave. Between 2013 and 2016, overdose deaths from fentanyl and similar molecules increased by 88% per year and they still only continue to go higher.


But, awareness regarding the potency of opioids is constantly spreading, and more people are aware of their debilitating effects. With time, we can grow past the need for such dangerous medications and make the world a better place.


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