A Plan to Stop a Silent Killer
By Senator Edward J. Markey
Heroin and prescription drug addiction is an equal-opportunity destroyer of lives and families across Massachusetts are struggling with the recent scourge of overdoses that are claiming lives at an unprecedented pace. Today, drug overdoses are the leading cause of injury deaths, surpassing car accidents nationwide.
This dramatic rise in addiction to heroin and prescription drugs, collectively known as opioids, is nothing less than catastrophic. And the magnitude of the harm that our communities are suffering is nothing short of an epidemic. Families across the Commonwealth are experiencing the daily tragedies of addiction that are playing out in cars, in parking lots, in emergency rooms, and all too often silently in homes across our state. In Massachusetts, approximately 65,000 people are currently dependent on opioids—50,000 of whom need treatment but aren’t currently receiving it.
There is no doubt that the current opioid overdose crisis has been primarily driven by the health care system. In the past decade, the number of prescriptions written has increased by 400 percent. In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers, enough for every American adult to have their own bottle of pills. The United States makes up only 4.6 percent of the world’s population, but consumes 80 percent of its opioids — and 99 percent of the Vicodin, one of the more popular prescription opioids.
These statistics are deeply disturbing. While there are legitimate uses for these prescriptions in the treatment of chronic pain, the excess pills that are flooding our homes and sitting stagnant in medicine cabinets are only fueling the current crisis. Once an individual is addicted to prescription pain pills, they may be driven to use illicit substances that have similar effects, most notably heroin. Data collected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), has found that four out of five heroin users started abusing prescription drugs first.
We need to prevent this rampant addiction before it takes hold. And we need to do it in a balanced way that ensures that people who need prescription pain medication have access to it while minimizing the negative consequences associated with the misuse and abuse of these pills.
Unfortunately, many of our jails are serving as de-facto detox centers, but we know that sending an addict from prison into the community without adequate support is like throwing a baby into a swimming pool — we should expect they will sink. The rates of drug related recidivism are high. We cannot simply arrest away this problem. And treatment for opioid addiction should not be harder to access than the actual heroin and prescription drugs destroying our communities.
There is no one silver bullet to a disease as complex as opiate addiction. It will require a comprehensive solution that brings together, science, medicine, public health and law enforcement on the federal, state and local level. Solving this problem will take multiple policy changes that all work in unison.
Over the last 6 months I have met with first responders, victims and health experts across the Commonwealth, holding roundtables with constituents and experts to discuss the issues that are causing the current crisis of addiction and craft solutions to address the problem.
Today I released my comprehensive federal strategy to address the heroin and prescription drug abuse epidemic based on the ideas and insights gained from these roundtables.
My plan is based on three major principles:
1. Preventing new addictions before they take hold;
2. Expanding access to multiple treatments that work and can help those who are dealing with a substance use disorder achieve recovery;
3. Reducing drug related recidivism in our jails and prisons.
Fortunately, Massachusetts is already ahead of the curve, with a new law that will improve monitoring on the use of prescription opioids and increase treatment access. I know we still have much more work to do to be able to address this emergency that is tearing our communities apart and robbing our children of the greatest gift they are given – the opportunity to maximize their God-given abilities.
Some people call heroin and prescription drug abuse a silent killer. But we cannot be silent any longer.