Fight the nation’s manmade opioid epidemic

By Knute Buehler

The Bulletin

We have a full-blown public health crisis in this country. No, it’s not Ebola nor the Zika virus. It is the crisis of narcotic painkiller and heroin (both known as opioids) addiction.

This crisis is becoming increasingly personal and devastating: Sixteen percent of Americans know someone who has died from a prescription painkiller overdose, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey; 9 percent have seen a family member or close friend die. The pervasive heartache and loss within our families and communities caused by this addiction is almost unthinkable, yet it has been a crisis years in the making.

Addictive narcotic painkillers were once reserved for extreme situations like terminal cancer. But opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin are now widely prescribed for common conditions like arthritis and lower back pain.

As a physician, I’ve seen the devastating effects on patients, families and communities. The consequences have been catastrophic: In 2013, prescription painkillers caused nearly 7,000 emergency room visits and 44 deaths every day in the U.S. And Oregon has more narcotic prescriptions written per person than nearly any other state.

It is time for us to address this silent epidemic head on and develop common sense solutions.

Some have called this the worst man-made epidemic in history. This has occurred with a confluence of factors that have created a perfect storm in Oregon and elsewhere. The economic downturn and rapid changes in our society over the past two decades have left too many people insecure and vulnerable. For some people, their physical and mental suffering was easy prey.

A few medical professionals and unethical pharmaceutical companies formed an unholy alliance. They portrayed these drugs as safe for everyday use to treat a variety of medical conditions, since addiction, they claimed, would occur in less than 1 percent of patients — ignoring thousands of years of human experience.

Their marketing and tactics were bolstered by organizations like the World Health Organization that made freedom from pain an universal right. Hospital system compliance officers and even the Oregon legislature in 2000 warned doctors of the legal risk of not prescribing more of these risky medications.

I remember one of my senior neurosurgeon partners speaking out against increased prescribing of narcotics citing his previous experience decades earlier seeing young soldiers in Vietnam become addicted to morphine. He was told he was out of step with modern practice.

Such warnings went unheeded and millions became addicted, leaving a trail of broken lives and families across our state. These addictions to prescription narcotics were made worse with the incredible influx of cheap and powerful Mexican black tar heroin. They found eager buyers, many of whom were already addicted and seeking stronger and larger quantities of opioids.

And they specifically targeted states like Oregon that had many vulnerable communities after decades of social and economic decay. The Oregonian wrote recently that Oregon now has “one of the highest rates of substance abuse in the country and a treatment system underfunded and overwhelmed.”

Clearly, we have much to do to solve this crisis. In the 2016 legislative session, I have introduced concepts to help prevent prescription drug abuse and potentially save those that overdose by expanding access to the reversal drug Naloxone.

However, the best antidotes to the opioid epidemic are strong communities and secure people. This will require all of us to come together, stand with the victims and their families, and end this epidemic.