Every morning, when I log into Facebook, I’m already braced for the punch. I know what I’ll see. Another parent, another family, posting about their child’s fatal overdose. Social media is flooded with pictures of kids grinning in their graduation caps – and comatose, plugged into a monitor in the ICU. These posts are sad memorials to the victims of the opioid crisis – and a call to action, to government, big pharma, and our communities. These deaths are preventable, and they affect every one of us. After all: this could be your kid.
Heroin use continues to grow dramatically as the opioid epidemic ravages our communities. Yet, many people who use opiates and die from overdoses aren’t truly addicted. Some haven’t even developed a chemical dependency yet. They’re recreational users, or they get their opiates from the pharmacy. I was one of those people: prescribed painkillers following a bad ankle injury, I quickly found that I needed more pills. Like many other people, I turned to black market alternatives when my prescription ran out. I ended up nearly dying. What would my mom have posted on her Facebook page? What stories would my friends have told about me? I am one of the lucky ones: I survived, and now I’m working to fight the addiction crisis that kills so many people who are just like me.
In the past year, a disturbing trend has appeared in post mortem toxicology reports. In British Columbia, Canada, a significant number of overdose victims tested positive for fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that is 100 times more toxic than morphine. Its use was popularized in North America in the 1990s, when it was introduced in patch form: stick on the patch, and the drug enters your bloodstream through your skin. Fentanyl is extremely potent, highly addictive, and claiming lives. Families are losing their children – and pharmaceutical companies are making money from their tragic losses.
I mean, let’s face it. Heroin is what is called in business a “growth market.” People who are addicted to opiates, unless they’re physically and psychologically separated from the drug, will want to keep using more often and in larger amounts. They’re also more likely to turn to unregulated drug manufacturers, like Chinese chemical companies that produce pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl and smuggle it into North America. Considering that Canada is the number one user of prescription opioids per capita in the world, this is a disaster waiting to happen.
It’s already happening in the United States. The number of overdose deaths in North America is unprecedented. We’ve literally never seen anything like this before. In the United States, overdoses kill over 150 people every day. In Canada, it’s 5-7 people per day. Every life lost represents an empty chair at the family table. Someone’s parent, sibling, child, is gone forever. In many cases, the death is accidental, a case of tragic bad luck. And the person had no history of substance abuse. So what’s killing our children, and how do we stop this from happening?
The opioid epidemic didn’t come from nowhere. It began when drug companies began to manufacture new, powerful painkillers and market them to people who had no knowledge of what they could do and no defense against them. Doctors overprescribed these drugs without government oversight or regulation. And the drugs themselves became more potent, more addictive. A few hundred micrograms of Fentanyl, which is a dose the size of a grain of salt, will get you high. Two grains will kill you. This deadly trend has continued unchecked. Parents lose their children – families and communities are torn apart. Yet we continue to blame the people who suffer most. Instead of offering help to people who struggle with substance addiction and abuse, we shame them. We withdraw the help they need to find recovery, and create policies that punish them. How does that make sense?
This time, we won’t be silenced. This tragic epidemic has taken too many lives. Instead of pointing the finger at the people facing addiction, it’s time to put the blame where it belongs: on government policies that are formed by corporate interests. On ignorance and fear of what substance addiction really is, and where it comes from. And on lawmakers who ignore the overwhelming data that supports the effectiveness of treatment and social services for people who are ready to begin their journey of recovery.
I say to them: look at these young people. Listen to their parents’ stories. This was not supposed to happen. And yet, it happens every day, in every city and town. We can’t bring back the ones we’ve lost, but we can work together to ensure that no parent knows the horror of holding their kid for the last time. I pray to God every day that this crisis ends. But prayer is just the beginning. Together, we must face this epidemic head on. We must – before another life is lost.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.