'Drugs are bad, mmmmmkay?' The popular, albeit controversial South Park TV series portrays the school's hilarious guidance counselor Mr. Mackey monotonously droning on to his students, the very same thing our own parents have told us forever - don't do drugs.
We can all agree that illegal street drugs, pedaled on the corner of every city in our country are deadly. And the culture that surrounds street corner commerce is indeed wreaking havoc in our neighborhoods. But what about “legal drugs”? Who is addressing this more subtle, yet equally effective killer and destroyer of lives?
This closed door epidemic is quietly reaching a boiling point in blue collar suburbs across the continent. The abuse and overuse of powerfully potent, highly addictive, doctor prescribed opioid pain killers...is killing.
The question on your mind is most likely the same one many of us are asking, 'does this high volume prescription of opioid pain medication really compare to the fallout associated with illegal street drugs?'
You might be shocked, as I was, to know that in 2007, opioids - prescription pain killers – were involved in more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Most of us naturally perceive a clear moral divide between pharmacy and street corner deals. The problem is that this boundary we have drawn in our minds is exactly that, merely a perceptual difference, with the reality being that both sides are yielding similar, tragic results. People are taking prescribed medications – quite a few of them actually, without second thought to the potential life threatening risks.
The numbers don't lie.
Americans, constituting only 4.6% of the world’s population, have been consuming 80% of the global opioid supply, and 99% of the global hydrocodone supply. Retail sales of commonly used opioid medications (including methadone, oxycodone, fentanyl base, hydromorphone, hydrocodone, morphine, meperidine, and codeine) have increased from a total of 50.7 million grams in 1997 to 126.5 million grams in 2007. This is an overall increase of 149% with increases ranging from 222% for morphine, 280% for hydrocodone, 319% for hydromorphone, 525% for fentanyl base, 866% for oxycodone, to 1,293% for methadone. Average sales of opioids per person have increased from 74 milligrams in 1997 to 369 milligrams in 2007, a 402% increase. (Pain Physician 2010: 13:401-435)
We are being prescribed into pain pill addictions that for many of our family members, friends and neighbors, could start the journey down a road to a lifetime dependance on prescription opioids or gateway use to heroin and other more readily available, illegal street drugs.
According to results of the 2007 to 2011 CHMS, 41% of community-dwelling 6- to 79-year-olds had taken at least one prescription medication within two days of their household interview (Stats Canada).
In a US study between 2009-2012, 21.8% people had used three or more prescription drugs in the past 30 days, and 10.7% of people interviewed had used five or more over the counter drugs in the past month. (Health, United States, 2014, table 85)
We are using a lot of medications, and we are using them every day.
Why do we as a society have almost indiscriminate, quick and totally legalized access to some of the most powerful and addictive medications known to man? Why does our system over-treat symptoms and under prognosticate the root causes of those symptoms? Why do we turn to masking pain rather than addressing it? Why are we OK with taking pills, when on the very label of the bottle is a list longer than a short story, of highly troubling, long term, potentially deadly side effects? And why are pharmaceutical companies allowed to synthetically produce souped up versions of nature's most deadly natural substances, overseen by a regulatory body that profits immensely from the creation of new drug patents?
I don't believe it's because we are stupid, at least not all of us. I don't believe it is because doctors and pharmacists are evil. I believe it is because the pharmaceutical dealers...ahem, I mean companies have sold us the ultimate drug - false promises of quick, almost harmless answers that can give us the greatest, happiest, pain free existence possible. We have been fed half truths, sugar coated data and soothing platitudes, and with a glass of water we have swallowed these lies whole – and now many of us are unable to get back. We are a society of addicts, and the consequences are massive.
This epidemic has followed a widespread shift in treatment philosophy by a medical system here in North America that is overwhelmed and falling behind. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention there has been at least a 10-fold increase in the medical use of opioid painkillers during the last 20 years because of a movement toward more aggressive management of pain.
In 2010, enough prescription painkillers were prescribed to medicate every American adult every 4 hours for 1 month (United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime).
Getting to the bottom of this issue is quite simple. When it comes to fruit loops, just follow your nose, when it comes to the ultimate root of this ugly issue, just follow the money.
Pharmaceutical companies are profiting off of our addictions, and they are doing it at the cost of the lives of our families and friends. These companies, and the legislators that continue to propagate non-natural pharmaceutical patents are the ultimate drug dealers. And we, the working class, the average person with a bungalow, two kids and a white picket fence are the new age junkie. We are becoming a society of drug addicts...but it's all good because it is legal, and profitable.
More than 1,000 Canadians die every year from these drugs, Juurlink said, and most start out with a prescription from a doctor. Prescription medications are the second most costly component of health care, accounting for almost 14% ($29 billion) of Canada’s annual health care spending in 2013 (CBC)
A core group of massively wealthy and powerful pharmaceutical companies are feasting on our pathology of addiction.
There have been numerous new laws legislated on how medical companies have to label their products. Just look at modern pharmaceutical commercials where a pleasant, soothing voice reads in rapid, almost incomprehensible succession, a list of 30 potential side effects. But we are so fascinated by the joy-filled 90 year old speeding past his grandson on the golf course that even then, we are blind to what we are being dealt.
The worst part is, pharmaceutical companies admit it.
In 2007, executives at Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to misbranding OxyContin and other long-acting opioids. The agreed statement of facts described claims of lower abuse potential that were part of marketing campaigns (CBC).
I am not publishing this to condemn all use of medications. There are many reasons, conditions and issues that require medications. Our advancements in medicine and pharmacology have saved countless lives, extended our life expectancy and provided better quality of life for many of us. But it is a very blurry line where the appropriate, necessary part of these advancements melt into the profit based business of pharmaceutical companies and paid medical professionals who issue prescriptions like holy writs.
My ultimate hope in writing this article is that you will forgive my ranting, possibly obnoxious candor, and shameless flaunting of statistics for a moment, and also that you wouldn't label this as just another conspiracy theory gone viral via the blog-o-sphere. My hope is that you would agree to do two things, not for me, but for yourself and your loved ones.
ONE Be your own advocate! This means being relentless in your pursuit of the source of your pain, not the masking of your symptoms. Engage doctors, specialists, naturopaths and anyone else that could add discernment to your situation, and exhaust all avenues of proactive health care. Examine your lifestyle, diet, excercise, sleep patterns and stress load. Nobody else is responsible for your decision to medicate or not to medicate.
TWO. Research the short term and long term effects of proposed medication based treatment plans, and then collaborate with your primary health provider and seek their knowledge based on your educated, big picture questions. Call opioids and pain pills what they really are, narcotic analgesics - narcotics is not a pretty word for a reason. Your perspective when it comes to medications needs to be big picture. Does this drug actually address or fix your problem? What will your use of this drug look like after 5 or 10 years? Assuming you find and treat the source of your pain, how do you come off of this drug and what are the specific risks of withdrawal associated with your medication? When you start relying a pain medication, it will be very difficult to picture life without it - so do your homework.
Above all, just think twice about what you are putting in your body, it is after all, a temple.