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The Opiate Drug Epidemic by the Numbers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports stark numbers on the drug epidemic currently impacting the country. In terms of statistics, things are looking bleak:

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* Between 1999 and 2014, the number of prescription opiate painkillers dispensed, despite no increase in the amount of pain reported by Americans, quadrupled (CDC)

* Between 2002 and 2013, the number of fatal heroin overdoses quadrupled (CDC)

* In the previous decade, heroin use among people ages 18-25 has doubled (CDC)

The Washington Post reported that for the first time in American history, more people in this country died as the result of a heroin overdose than as the result of gun violence.

A Personal Look at the Drug Epidemic

The CDC reports that nearly half a million Americans died of a drug overdose between 2000 and 2014, and most of those overdoses (more than sixty percent) involved opiates (CDC.) That’s equivalent to the population of a city the size of Miami, Florida. It’s hard to even process such a large number, and bare statistics do little to communicate the devastation of the drug epidemic communities are facing today.

The anecdotes that more accurately depict this tragic pattern come from news reports around the country. Foster care systems in multiple states are swollen to capacity due to high rates of opiate use among parents, as detailed in this report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Graphic footage of overdoses appear on local news channels regularly, showing the limp bodies of overdose victims. The New York Times reports that grandparents are becoming parents again, raising their grandchildren because opiate addiction has rendered their own children incapable of raising kids. The Palm Beach Post, a local newspaper in south Florida, won accolades for their series “Heroin: Killer of a Generation,” in which they published pictures and biographies of the 216 Palm Beach County residents who died in 2015 of an opiate overdose. Among those who died: a former assistant state attorney, a veteran of the war in Iraq, a 19 year-old-girl, a Hurricane Sandy clean-up volunteer. The face of the modern drug epidemic belongs to these people; our neighbors, children, parents, teachers, and friends.

How the Drug Epidemic is Altering Society

People are starting to respond to the drug epidemic differently than they have in previous crises. Perhaps it’s because of the staggering death toll, or changing attitudes about addiction, or because this particular epidemic disproportionately affects a middle-class, white demographic. Regardless of why, this specific drug epidemic is changing the way many organizations and individuals are responding to drug use:

* The Gloucester Police Department in Massachusetts piloted a program now being duplicated in multiple towns in which addicts can turn in their drugs and/or paraphernalia and be sent to treatment rather than to jail

* Multiple community harm reduction coalitions and hospitals have created programs that give opiate users doses of naloxone (an overdose-reversal drug) to carry with them in case of an overdose; forty-seven states have laws allowing people to carry or use naloxone without a prescription (National Conference of State Legislatures)

* Thirty-seven states have “Good Samaritan laws” which protect people who call 911 to report an overdose from arrest for drug and/or paraphernalia possession (National Conference of State Legislatures)

The general consensus is that if this drug epidemic is not addressed, many thousands more people will be lost to an opiate overdose in the coming years. The widespread destruction caused by opiates like heroin and fentanyl is reshaping the way drug addiction is approached in the United States.

Treating Opiate Addiction

The purpose of the changing approaches to opiate addiction is to get addicted individuals into treatment. Opiate use is often symptomatic of underlying issues like mental illness, trauma, home environment, social problems, or lack of a support network. Treating addiction doesn’t mean simply taking away the drugs and hoping for the best. In order to prevent a relapse, it’s vital to address the pre-existing circumstances that led an individual to turn to opiates to cope.

Grace’s Way Recovery, located in West Palm Beach, Florida, was created out of a very personal need. Owner Bernadette Schultz left her career and established the drug treatment facility in response to her own son’s struggle with addiction. Today, her son is sober, and together they run Grace’s Way in an attempt to offer hope to addicts and their families in the midst of the opiate drug epidemic. Grace’s Way offers multiple therapeutic methods of treatment, including relapse prevention therapy. In the heart of today’s drug epidemic, this treatment center is another example of how the trajectory of people’s lives are altered by addiction, and in this case, recovery.

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