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Opioid Crisis: Why Now?

As the school year begins and Boston’s population multiplies with the influx of nearly 152,000 college students, the opioid crisis gains a fresh audience from the city’s newly minted tenants. After the rate of opioid prescriptions nearly quadrupled in the U.S. from 1999 to 2014 and the rate of opioid-related deaths subsequently followed, a new epidemic, now known as the “opioid crisis,” has plagued much of the United States. Opioids are painkillers that include but are not limited to morphine, heroin, fentanyl, and oxycodone. The recent flood of headlines and documentaries meant to inform and warn Americans about the storm tearing apart small towns and big cities alike begs the question: why now? Death by overdose is not a new phenomenon in the U.S., so why be so proactive about characterizing it as a crisis? Was not the siren’s call of crack cocaine as worthy a cause to label that epidemic as a “public health emergency”? Is it because the bright-eyed, uninhibited university students of Boston caught a glimpse of the Methadone Mile and didn’t like what they saw?

One could attribute the heightened awareness surrounding opioid deaths and dens to the sheer power of the drugs. Due to the accessibility of opioids, the relative strength of the drugs to that of others is visible in the bags under users’ eyes as well as their flushed skin, adding to the general consciousness of the crisis. A testament to the pure power of painkillers occurred recently in Ohio when a police officer encountered fentanyl powder, a synthetic opioid similar to morphine, but 50-100 times more powerful. The fentanyl entered his system as he brushed remnants from the day’s drug bust off of his uniformed sleeve. Later that day, he overdosed and nearly died.

Secondly, there is a lot more understanding about the reality of getting clean. According to Healthline, “Prolonged use of these drugs changes the way nerve receptors work in your brain, and these receptors become dependent upon the drug to function.” Quitting cold turkey is not always an option for opioid users. There is a great difficulty in recovering despite the many programs, rehabilitation facilities, sponsors, and resources. With the high level of publicity and means of getting clean, the fight is progressing. With awareness at the front of the movement, many addicts are receiving treatment that users of past drug epidemics did not.

There is also the question of how big of a role race plays in the level of studio time and page spreads that the opioid epidemic is receiving. In a TIME magazine article, Hernandez D. Stroud, a fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, draws the connection between race and perception of drug use when he writes, “Today’s drug scourge is striking both suburbs and inner cities, both rich and poor. But the vast majority of addicts have one thing in common: They’re white.” In this case, we see a strict departure from other drug epidemics, giving the general, majority white public pause. Thus we see a stronger response, which manifests itself in an outcry more reminiscent of Ebola’s transatlantic journey than the reactions to the prevalence of crack-cocaine in the U.S at the height of its popularity.

I believe that race is the driving force behind the intensified response to the opioid crisis. The difference is most evident in the punitive response. For example, the “Opioid Abuse and Prevention and Treatment Act of 2017” has just been introduced to our 115th Congress. This bill would “identify and investigate” the over-prescribing of opioids in each state and provide treatment to addicts, which directly conflicts with the strict approach of the “Rockefeller drugs laws” in the 1970s. Though I am glad that the danger of opioid use, whether recreationally or medically prescribed, is getting the attention it deserves, it should not take a particular segment of a population being ravaged by disease to produce outcry.

Boston is taking its own steps to combat the crisis. Infectious disease doctors, Alison Rapoport of the Cambridge Health Alliance and Christopher Rowley of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, are calling to action doctors across the country, particularly fellow infectious disease specialists, to tackle the rampant spread of addiction. Boston College, too, has a hand in the fight. Last year, the Class of 2019 Gabelli Presidential Scholars organized a project focused on the opioid crisis in Boston. “Overlooked and Overdosed” featured two events: The first exhibit was comprised of photos and quotes from interviews with those directly connected to the crisis. The second event was a panel filled with professionals who witness first-hand the impact of the drugs. Much of the panel conversation surrounded the likely response of the Trump administration to the opioid epidemic. Despite the expansive spread of information regarding the crisis, Presidential Scholar Sarya Baladi describes her experience researching the effects and facing the reality of the drugs as enlightening.  

Though I commend news organizations, doctors, and my fellow students on their efforts to reverse and restrain opioids from ruining more lives, I believe their presence exposes a greater fault in our society: the tendency to only acknowledge suffering when it hits home.

Born and raised in North Jersey (yes, it makes a difference).