Prior to 2015, I wouldn't have noticed the national public health event happening this weekend -- this, despite being a faculty member at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, where many of my colleagues hold joint appointments in the School of Medicine and School of Public Health. I wouldn't have noticed, because I don't have a drug problem, and only use prescription medications for their intended purpose, so a campaign with the goal of getting drugs off the street wouldn't have registered with me. But failing to notice would have been wrong, because I am part of the problem; and likely you are too.
This past year, I was hit by a van while on my motorcycle, resulting in my left foot being crushed. Miraculously, the doctors were able to save my foot, but I spent more than a month in and out of hospitals, and had a total of six surgeries (so far). For the better part of three months, I was high as a kite on prescription opioids such as oxycodone, OxyContin, morphine, fentanyl, and dilaudid. And at the end of that time period, I learned firsthand why we, as a nation, are so worried about prescription opioid painkillers: because they can ruin your life.
When my pain was starting to come under control, I tried to wean off the meds, only to find that my body had become dependent on the drugs, which means that reducing my dosage caused severe withdrawal effects. And these effects are terrible: I spent the next month nauseated, chilled, sweating, restless and awake. In short: I spent the month in my own private little hell, and I had to constantly fight the urge to just spare myself this misery by going back on the meds. And of course, that is precisely where these drugs become a major problem.
I survived withdrawal, but it was the worst thing I've been through in my life (and that includes being hit by a van). And to be clear, it could have, and should have, gone better for me, if the medical system were better set up for managing long-term opioid use. My story has a relatively common beginning, with a less common ending: many people who first take opioids due to injury or surgery become dependent, and then addicted, and then part of the so-called "Opioid Crisis" in America -- the crisis that was responsible for more than twenty-eight thousand deaths in 2014. So how do so many people get ahold of such dangerous drugs?
Of course, some of them turn to heroin and other street drugs, but not all do; in fact, more than half of the twenty-eight thousand opioid-related deaths in 2014 involved prescription opioids. And this is where I -- and you -- come into the picture. Lots of people get their drugs from family, friends, and strangers' medicine cabinets. Physicians write over 250 million prescriptions for opioids per year, and a lot of those prescriptions end up partially used, with the remainder just sitting around. Then, well-intentioned people sometimes offer their friends and family their leftovers when they think it's genuinely helpful, or kids find them, or kids' friends find them, or even the burglar who is only looking in your medicine cabinet finds them. This means that your totally legitimate prescription pain pills -- and mine -- can be fueling a crisis that is resulting in tens of thousands of deaths per year.
And now we're back to this weekend. Saturday, April 30th is National Take-Back Day. Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., you can get all of your unused prescription medicines out of your cabinet by taking them to a designated drop-off site, which you can locate here; year-round locations are also available -- find one here. Certainly, cleaning out your medicine cabinet is not going to solve the Opioid Crisis. But it can ensure that your meds don't end up on the street, or otherwise fueling the problem. I've already gathered up my stash of half-empty bottles for return; I know what these drugs can do, and I won't let my own prescriptions end up hurting someone. Will you?
This post also appears on the Berman Institute Bioethics Bulletin.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.