4 Ways to Combat the Opioid Epidemic in America

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Opioid addiction remains a major public health crisis in America, and was linked to 33,000 deaths in 2015. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. — the majority of which are being caused by opioid use. In 2015, over 63 percent of all drug overdose deaths were caused by either heroin or painkillers.

Because opioid addiction is affecting America on such a massive scale, there are no quick fixes or solutions that can end this deadly epidemic within a short period of time. However, opioid addiction can be successfully treated and eliminated in the U.S. using long-term solutions that change the way Americans view and use these highly addictive substances. Increased access to opioid addiction treatment and more education surrounding the dangers of opioid use are just some ways America can fight its ongoing opioid epidemic.

Opioid addiction can affect anyone of any age, gender, and socioeconomic status — including your coworkers, neighbors, and loved ones. Here are four ways America can combat the opioid epidemic and improve the lives and safety of everyone in the nation.

1. Using Cannabis to Treat Opioid Addiction

New scientific evidence is showing that cannabis can effectively treat opioid addiction by blocking the “rewarding” effects of opioids. Cannabis is also effective at relieving opioid cravings, pain, insomnia, and other withdrawal symptoms associated with reducing opioid use. Patients who were prescribed opioids to treat severe pain generally find that cannabis is a safer alternative for pain relief, since the substance carries a far lower risk for physical dependency and overdose.

The Role of Cannabis in Treatment

Cannabis is said to interact with the same receptors in the brain as opioids, and helps dissolve feelings of reward associated with opioid use. This effect makes users less likely to experience psychological cravings for opioids. Cannabis also helps reduce and eliminate severe opioid withdrawal symptoms like nausea and vomiting so users can experience a more comfortable detox and withdrawal.

Though science has proven cannabis can be an effective opioid addiction treatment many argue that his solution only exacerbates the nation’s drug problem, and replaces one addiction with another. However, scientists point out that using cannabis for addiction treatment is no different than using prescription drugs like buprenorphine and methadone — medications that mirror the effects of other opioids without producing euphoria or cravings.

Medical Marijuana Linked to Fewer Opioid Deaths

States that have legalized medical marijuana experience 25 percent fewer opioid overdose deaths than states in which marijuana use is prohibited. This means that legalizing cannabis for medical use across the country could save hundreds and thousands of lives that would otherwise be destroyed by opioid addiction. But many point out that the legalization of marijuana nationwide could take years, as could implementing this treatment in rehab centers across the country.

Given how the legalization of medical marijuana is expanding nationwide, a higher number of those who struggle with opioid addiction may soon have the option to treat their conditions using medical marijuana. Unfortunately, more scientific evidence is needed to prove the efficacy of cannabis for treating opioid addiction before it can be widely accepted by the healthcare industry and general public. At present, there are some drug rehab centers in California that have starting offering cannabis as an opioid addiction treatment.

2. Developing a Vaccine for Opioid Addiction

Addiction in general cannot be fully “cured,” regardless of whether the addiction is a physical or behavioral addiction. Overcoming addiction is usually an ongoing, lifelong process that involves making healthy lifestyle changes and modifying negative thoughts and behaviors that drive addiction. But scientists are currently developing vaccines that prevent highly addictive drugs like heroin from triggering euphoria and leading to addiction.

How Do Opioid Addiction Vaccines Work?

Opioid vaccines are meant to work by targeting illicit drugs in your body and preventing them from triggering feelings of euphoria. However, the vaccine only works if the immune system is able to produce enough antibodies to fight the drug after the vaccine is injected. Scientists involved with developing these vaccines say that many times, not enough antibodies are generated to make the vaccine effective after injection.

Scientists initially began developing morphine vaccinations during the 1970s, but moved on to other projects when methadone maintenance therapy became more widespread, accepted, and well-known as an effective opioid addiction treatment. In recent years, scientists resumed developing addiction vaccines in an effort to lower the rate of overdose deaths caused by highly addictive substances including heroin, cocaine, and nicotine. These vaccines have been in development for nearly 20 years, but must be tested in humans before they can be approved for use in addiction treatment.

Barriers Associated with Opioid Vaccines

A major challenge associated with addiction vaccines is that they only target the specific drug a person is using, and are ineffective against other substances. For example, a person vaccinated for heroin can still take other opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone, and continue suffering from addiction, since the heroin vaccine only targets specific chemicals produced by heroin. Additionally, a patient would require multiple injections per year to spur the production of antibodies needed to make the vaccine effective.

Testing these vaccines on humans will require millions of dollars, which is why these vaccines are still not available as opioid addiction treatments. The scientists heading these projects plan to seek funding from major pharmaceutical companies so they can move forward with human testing and launch a new fight against opioid addiction.

3. Increasing Access to Affordable Treatment Options

A larger number of those who suffer from opioid addiction fail to seek treatment on behalf of financial barriers. Residential and inpatient treatment facilities often cost thousands of dollars per month, while rising prescription drug costs make it difficult for patients to continue using medication-assisted treatments. Plus, if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act, millions of Americans may no longer have access to health insurance plans that cover the cost of opioid addiction treatment.

Lack of Health Coverage for Opioid Addiction Treatment

An estimated 220,000 people who suffer from opioid addiction currently have health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, which means if the law is repealed, opioid addiction and overdose death rates will continue to rise. Those covered by Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act will also lose access to opioid addiction treatment and a drug called naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Within a recent five-year period, Medicaid spending on naloxone alone increased by over 90,000 percent, but thousands of lives were saved in the process.

Fortunately, the 21st Century Cures Act, which was passed by Congress in December 2016, will provide the country with $1 billion to be used for expanding access to addiction treatment. Emphasis will be placed on increasing access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, which involves the use of FDA-approved medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone to curb cravings and other withdrawal symptoms. This money has already been distributed to states that need it the most based on opioid overdose and addiction rates.

Success Rates of Opioid Addiction Treatment

America is home to over 14,500 facilities that treat drug and alcohol addiction using detox, counseling, and other therapies that tackle addiction both physically and psychologically. Inpatient and residential treatments offer the highest success rates when it comes to helping individuals overcome opioid addiction and achieve long-term sobriety.

Inpatient treatment costs an average of $3,200, with 73 percent of patients finishing treatment. Residential treatment costs an average of $3,100, with 51 percent of patients completing treatment. For both treatment types, roughly 21 percent of patients are able to achieve sobriety for a minimum of five years.

Connecting individuals with affordable addiction treatment allows each state and the country as a whole to save millions on costs associated with incarceration and hospitalization. Best of all, expanding access to affordable treatment helps prevent you and your loved ones from becoming lifelong victims of opioid addiction.

4. Realistic Solutions

Smoking cannabis to suppress opioid cravings, receiving an injection to cure heroin addiction, and increasing access to affordable treatment may seem like easy, no-brainer solutions to the opioid crisis in America. But realistically, these solutions will take time to implement across the country, which doesn’t solve the problems you and your loved ones may be facing with opioid addiction today, right at this very moment. Ideally, the best solutions to opioid crisis involve educating Americans on the dangers surrounding opioid use, and on treatment options available today that can help you or your loved one successfully overcome addiction.

Understanding the Dangers Surrounding Opioids

The better Americans understand how opioids affect the brain and body, the better they’ll be able to grasp the importance of correctly using prescription painkillers and avoiding heroin. Since painkillers carry a high risk for addiction, patients should be advised on how to properly use their medications to avoid tolerance and physical dependence. Physicians must also improve their current prescribing methods, and use their state’s prescription drug monitoring databases to confirm their patients have no other active opioid prescriptions.

Addressing the Stigma Surrounding Addiction

Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease due to the way drugs and alcohol can change a person’s brain function. In the case of opioid use, heroin and painkillers bind to opioid receptors in the brain and trigger the release of dopamine — a brain chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. Repeated use of heroin and painkillers can render the brain unable to produce dopamine naturally on its own, which is why users become addicted, and keep returning to opioids.

To improve its opioid epidemic, America can raise awareness about the fact that addiction is a disease, and not a moral failing. Viewing addiction as a disease that requires intensive treatment can help remove the stigma surrounding addiction, and encourage a higher number of people to get help at an opioid addiction treatment center.

Tackling Illicit Synthetic Opioids

Heroin and painkillers are naturally derived from opium poppy plants, but synthetic opioids are comprised of man-made chemicals that mimic the effects of heroin and painkillers, but offer far worse consequences. Synthetic opioids can lead to an overdose after just one use, due to the way these potent, dangerous chemicals interfere with the brain and central nervous system.

Fentanyl, carfentanil, and U-47700 are just some illicit synthetic opioids that are being sold on the streets and mixed with heroin to produce stronger effects. These substances are also available on the Internet, and typically shipped overseas from China and other parts of Asia. Illicit synthetic opioids are driving overdose deaths at a higher rate than heroin and prescription painkillers due to their potency levels.

Educating your family about the dangers surrounding illicit opioids purchased on the streets can prevent your loved ones from putting themselves at risk for an overdose. Advocates suggest that law enforcement should also tighten security at the borders to prevent drug cartels from trafficking illicit opioids into the U.S. from Mexico.

Evaluating Realistic Treatment Options

Opioid addiction cannot be treated using cannabis in states that have not legalized marijuana for medical use. Opioid addiction vaccines are also not available, and have not yet been tested on humans. Until these treatments are available, Americans must focus on more realistic options proven effective at fighting opioid addiction today.

Benefits of Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment is one of the most effective treatments for opioid addiction. These treatments involve the use of medications that block the effects of illicit opioids and reduce cravings and other withdrawal symptoms. This allows users to gradually withdraw from heroin and painkillers over the course of several weeks without experiencing insomnia, muscle pain, and symptoms that increase the risk for dehydration and malnutrition.

Buprenorphine, methadone, naltrexone, and Suboxone are just some FDA-approved medications used to treat opioid addiction. These medications are usually prescribed long-term, and combined with other therapies such as counseling and behavioral therapy that address psychological causes of addiction. Medications prescribed to patients are either taken at home, or dispensed to patients daily at the clinic to lower the risk for prescription drug abuse.