THE NORTH AMERICAN PRESCRIPTION DRUG EPIDEMIC
The North American Prescription Drug Epidemic
Make no mistake — North America is in the midst of a prescription drug crisis. Dominated by an addiction to opioids, prescription drug overdoses claim the lives of well over 100 North Americans per day, making them more deadly than traffic accidents or gun violence. The USA and Canada are the number one and two users of opioids in the world, responsible for more than 80% of global consumption with less than 5% of the population. Clearly, North Americans have a problem with opioid abuse. How did things get so bad?
The Birth of an Epidemic
The roots of prescription drug abuse can be traced back to the 1980s in the central Appalachian region of the United States. This region is characterised by its physically demanding mining and agricultural industries. The largely rural population here found themselves bent double by the burden of chronic pain, and early prescription opioids such as Vicodin and OxyContin offered a silver bullet for pain relief.
At the same time, research into alleviating the suffering of cancer patients championed drugs such as hydromorphone, methadone and oxycodone. The opioid industry as a whole was given a ringing endorsement from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1986. Encouraging doctors to prescribe potent opioids in cancer patients, the WHO unwittingly contributed to an aggressive marketing campaign from the industry that saw prescriptions across the continent skyrocket almost out of control.
This boom continued throughout the 1990s and early 2000s in spite of a limited understanding among medical practitioners of the addictive and far-reaching consequences of opioid use. This fact, coupled with a negligence among certain sectors of the pharmaceutical industry in revealing those consequences, formed the springboard from which opioids were able to take their stranglehold on the North American population.
Ever Widening Ripples
By the time the medical community began to wake up to the disastrous effects on the population from over-prescription and abuse of opioids, the damage had already been done and the rot had begun to spread. OxyContin was finally withdrawn from shelves in 2012, replaced by an apparently “tamper-proof” substitute named OxyNeo. Those looking to feed their addiction turned to the street to obtain black market supplies, all too often masquerading as oxycodone but actually cut with far more damaging substances.
Chief among these is one highly dangerous substance fentanyl. Allegedly 50 times more potent than heroin, fentanyl has been lauded as a viable alternative to other illicit opioid drugs. Canada has actually issued four times the amount of fentanyl prescriptions than the USA has over recent years. However, it’s been increasingly used by street pushers who cut the drug into heroin or other substances and market it either as the former or as an alternative to OxyContin. Due to a general ignorance about the drug and its incredible potency, spikes in deaths attributable to fentanyl have occurred all over Canada and the US.
The way the current drug epidemic differs from previous crises lies chiefly with the sector of society that it has affected. In the past, drug-related deaths have generally been confined to communities with a higher percentage of minorities, while the opioid crisis has affected more affluent caucausian populations. This has led some cynical commentators to remark that the official response to the crisis, the most recent “war on drugs”, has been more lenient on those concerned than previous incarnations.
Educational and Economic Support Necessary
The first International Pain Summit was held in Montreal in 2010 and proclaimed access to pain management as a fundamental human right, and called for improved legislation to be put in place to better regulate the prescription and distribution of such drugs. The following year, the Canadian Pain Society demanded a national pain strategy, identifying four key areas of research: awareness and education, access to care and ongoing monitoring. More recently, several prominent healthcare experts in the country (including the foremost provincial health officer in British Columbia, Dr. Perry Kendall) have advocated adopting a similar approach to Portugal. There, a priority has been placed on offering social support and educational information to addicts while removing the criminalization of possession on a small scale. This has encouraged suffering addicts to come out of the shadows and seek help in a safer, controlled environment. Dr. Kendall and others believe that doing the same in Canada will do much to address the deaths caused by the pharmaceutical black market.
In order to overcome the crisis that is currently afflicting North Americans in unprecedented numbers, there is a need for healthcare professionals and the general public alike to fully understand what they’re dealing with. Raising awareness and making alternative options available (such as massage, acupuncture and physiotherapy) are key to bringing the problem under control.
At the same time, new avenues of pain relief need to be explored. At Medipure Pharmaceuticals Inc., we are working on an innovative breed of medication which addresses pain management, anxiety relief and a variety of other conditions at the molecular level through modulation of the endocannabinoid system within the human body at a molecular level. At the forefront of this research, we see as ourselves as one of the front-runners in pain relief and are confident that our ongoing research and development will help us bring chronic pain and its attendant problems under control, without the startling statistics that accompany current methods of treatment.