THE opioid crisis in the United States has taken over media reports this past year with CNN running several major stories that profile parents and couples overdosed in their automobiles with children in the back seat.
These images strike straight to the heart as one feels immediate disgust and outrage about the harm potentially posed to children with a combination of empathy towards the parents who are themselves victims in a larger big pharma-fabricated addiction crisis. And often one is left wondering, “What is wrong in the United States?”
The problem is that despite the British media reports of grandparents raising their orphaned grandchildren, the many stories relating this matter to Prince’s untimely death, and Louis Theroux’s investigation into the heroin crisis in Huntington, West Virginia, the sad fact is that Theroux could have stayed back home and made his film.
What he calls “America’s love affair with prescription painkillers [which] has led to widespread dependency on opiates” is very much a problem in the United Kingdom, albeit with a twist.
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) annual report for 2016, the UK is currently the number one country in the EU for drug overdoses with approximately one in three of the EU’s overdose deaths.
As in the US these deaths are mainly related to heroin and other opioids. And like the US there is a connection between how illegal drugs like heroin are the result of a reckless opioid drug market and medical industry.
Yet, despite the evidence of record drug overdoses in the UK, an investigation by the Guardian found that 11 local councils in England made average cuts of 17 per cent to drug treatment services (£15m in total).
Detailing how seven people died of drug overdoses in Barnsley in the first half of 2017, the Guardian reports that “the council cut its drugs and alcohol services budget by more than a third between 2015-16 and 2016-17.” And many of these deaths are not from heroin alone but Fentanyl and even a mixture of the two.
So while, on the one hand, we are told that the opioid crisis is an “American problem,” the reality is it’s anything but. And some publications are well aware of this fact.
While deaths from synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl, a drug 100 times more powerful than morphine, rose by 1,125 per cent between 2000 and 2015, the deaths from all opioids rose 294 per cent.
Like the rise of Oxycodone in the US, Fentanyl in Britain has become that ground zero drug through which individuals have been made dependent upon a powerful opioid, driving these individuals to crime, impoverishment, and even death.
Even if one were to be a functioning addict, as many are, the risks to one’s employment are well-documented as well as to the ability to function day to day — from the inability to sleep, to meeting one’s economic obligations, to being disqualified from home or personal loans.
Yet survival is not a luxury when overdose comes into the picture: for the first eight months of 2017 in the UK 60 deaths were linked to Fentanyl.
Conversely the fact is that the greatest link to opioid addiction is unemployment. In a study published by the US-based National Bureau of economic Research (NBER) earlier this year, it reports that as the unemployment rate increases by one percentage point in any given county, the opioid-death-rate rises by 3.6 per cent and emergency-room visits by 7 per cent.
And this is not the only study to provide such correlations as a Princeton labour economic Alan Kruger demonstrates. There are huge links, we are currently learning, between deaths brought on by joblessness, hopelessness, homelessness, as well as physical and emotional pain.
Unlike the United States where the pharmaceutical lobby has actively recruited future opioid addicts since the 1990s, Britain’s medical system is vastly different such that prescriptions are better managed.
Yet despite having five times the population of Britain, the United States only has twice the number of heroin addicts.
A cursory glance over the prices of street heroin tell this story clearly as one gram sells for $60-90 (around £40-£60) in Britain compared to $200-450 (£133-£298) in the US.
Add to this equation the availability of methadone within the NHS and the availability of street valium for £1 a pop, the use of opioids overall is clearly less than that of street drugs in Britain.
Yet the fact that British drug users are not opting for the stronger opioid painkillers as they are in the US, with the exception of Tramadol and codeine, does not mean this trend will continue.
The fluctuating costs of street drugs can change this reality at any moment. Also Britain has had its problems with methadone deaths in the past, a crisis that many experts thought worsened the landscape of addiction rather than improving it.
In the UK deaths from heroin and morphine have more than doubled over the past three years. In 2015, 2,479 people died in England and Wales because due to illegal drug use with a rise of 10 per cent from the previous year.
A total of 3,674 people died from legal and illegal drug use in 2015, the highest since records began in 1993. 2015 was also the year that saw Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid which is 50 time more potent than heroin, kill 58 people in Britain.
Then in 2016 3,744 people were killed in England and Wales with 1,209 of these deaths being uniquely heroin and morphine. Also last year MDMA killed 63 and cocaine killed 371, total increases of 103 per cent and 167 per cent respectively from 2012. This is a record high for drug deaths in the UK.
And there is every reason to believe given the partial statistics for 2017 that deaths from Fentanyl will likely be far higher for 2017 than ever before.
The Guardian reports that most of the overdose deaths were accidental, the ONS said, while others were a result of suicide or mental and behavioural disorders caused by drugs.
And more than half of all deaths involved an opiate, such as heroin or morphine, followed by antidepressants, benzodiazepine, cocaine, paracetamol, and amphetamines.
What drives people to take these drugs? Usually the story goes like this: patients are prescribed strong opiates in response to an illness or accident, the opiates are eventually either not enough or the prescription comes to a sudden end due to a doctor’s intervention in shutting down future prescriptions or medical insurance fails to pay due to limited coverage on opioid prescriptions and the refusal to cover alternative non-opioid treatments.
Dependent upon pain relief, these individuals are forced to turn to other drugs just to manage their pain.
But what, precisely, is the pain to be managed? From all reports on this epidemic, we are seeing that much of the pain is not at all physical but instead emotional and very much linked to unemployment where depression and pain have become symbiotic agonies.
In other words, not only does depression make people more sensitive to pain but opioids have been shown to help relieve the symptoms of depression.
Clearly, this cultural tragedy requires more research, especially that related to the social sciences. As studies already demonstrate, the origins of this crisis are much more deeply rooted in lack of community and capitalism than in any somatic illness or bodily demand.
What if it is not the amount of money one does not have, but rather the measure of human worth created through money in a society largely disembowelled by a fragmented, virtual reality which serves a surrogate for the social, as the masses, rich and poor, are largely driven down by debt, further fuelling this cycle of pain and dependency we are currently witnessing?
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