Everyone thinks they’re somehow above addiction – until it happens to them. The truth is that each and every one of us is susceptible to this disease of the brain. Whether you’re recklessly experimenting with drugs or taking opioid painkillers to get through the day, you’re susceptible.

It’s up to all of us to get informed and fight the stigmatization of addiction.

When someone we love becomes addicted, we tend to look for someone to blame. It would be easy to believe that the pharmaceutical companies manufactured addiction. But addiction isn’t a manufactured thing. It’s something that’s naturally hardwired into our existence. As human beings, we’re coded to seek pleasure. It’s those things that provide a little too much pleasure that are dangerous.

But this isn’t to say that the pharmaceutical companies are blameless. Many people in the medical field were irresponsible with pleasure-boosting drugs, and we became a nation in crisis.

One misguided letter fueled the opioid crisis

Researchers at Boston Medical center conducted a controlled study that showed only four addicted patients out of 11,822 who were given narcotics. The New England Journal of Medicine published an article with the study’s results in 1980. You can probably imagine what happened from here – but read on because the story does have some interesting twists.

Dr. Hershel Jick was the author of the study, which was meant to test the safety of narcotics in a controlled environment for a short time. When interviewed by NPR years later, Jick said the letter was inconsequential at the time. The results may have been somewhat surprising but not groundbreaking. The study results did not proport that narcotics were safe for long-term use outside of a hospital environment, but still, people used it to help market opioid painkillers for a wide variety of uses, supervised and unsupervised.

Eventually, doctors were prescribing opioid painkillers liberally. But the first push came from good intentions.

From terminal illness to widespread use

Imagine you were a doctor in the 80s or 90s and were forced to watch terminally ill cancer patients suffer. At the time, opioids were so strictly regulated that they weren’t an option. And then came this letter from Dr. Jick.

Cancer specialists pushed to be able to allow their patients access to these powerfully potent pain relievers. And here’s where things took a turn for the worse.

The government got on board, and drug companies quickly became thirsty for the increase in business. Soon after, Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin.

OxyContin’s role in the opioid crisis

Around the time OxyContin was introduced, doctors were beginning to prescribe opioids more liberally to non-cancer patients. So when Purdue launched an aggressive campaign to promote its new drug, it was a success. In 2001 alone, Purdue spent $200 million to market and promote OxyContin.

Opioids and heroin

Opioids painkillers are a lab-created form of opium. As such, they provide essentially the same risks and benefits.

Heroin is a naturally-derived opiate, so it provides a similar high to the person who is addicted to opioids. The benefit of heroin to an addict is that it’s a street drug that’s readily available. In fact, nearly 36 percent of 12th graders in 2017 believe that heroin is easy to get, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) survey.

Many people become addicted to opioid painkillers and then turn to heroin when doctors refuse to refill their prescriptions. So the next time you see an addict on the street, understand that his path to addiction may have been paved with good intentions. It’s possible that he began using opioids as a way to get through the day without pain. Regardless of his reasons, addiction is a disease that can take over anyone’s life in an instant.

In this current opioid epidemic, we all must remain compassionate and informed about the dangers of addiction.

Article written by Trevor McDonald