Many people have talked about the failure of the war on drugs. It's no secret that in spite of decades of attempts, little to nothing has improved. The war on drugs costs anywhere between $14 billion to $51 billion per year, depending on whether you're asking the Office of National Drug Control Policy (unsurprisingly, a governmental agency) or the Drug Policy Alliance respectively, with little hope of those costs decreasing over time. Worse, we have some of the highest drug incarceration rates in the world—Time putting the number at "seven to 10 times" that of most European countries per capita—and yet lifetime prevalence rates for every single drug tracked by the governmentally-approved SAMHSA report have increased dramatically over the 10 years it recorded, with the exception of methamphetamine. This is normally where I'd make the case for complete drug decriminalization, but there's one class of drugs embroiled in recent controversy that deserves its own defense: opioids.
Opioids are quite simply painkillers, and they've drawn a lot of concern. Analysts point to significantly increased usage—illustrated in the SAMHSA report as a 24 percent increase for heroin and a 25 percent increase for prescription painkillers over the span of 2002-2012, which is where the study ended—as well as high overdose and mortality rates as cause for alarm.
The blame, at least according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse's address to Congress, is not an inherent failure of the war on drugs, but rather the increasing amount of prescriptions for chronic pain. This line of thinking is endemic not only within the medical community, but even extending into drug culture. The lack of designer opioid drugs is in part because the drug class has become vilified as drawing greater attention toward other designer drugs and research chemicals—even in spite of reports of the dangers of "spice" (synthetic marijuana substitutes), "bath salts" (synthetic PCP substitutes) and other designer drugs that have caused deaths throughout the country in the absence of designer opioid abuse.
I'd like to present a different argument: namely, that it's not your doctor's fault; it's your senator's fault. Taking a closer look at the SAMHSA report, we see that the concern about opioid usage is exaggerated comparative to other drugs on the list: lifetime ecstasy usage increased by a whopping 59 percent over the same period, and many other rates—such as marijuana's 17 percent increase—are comparable. This is compounded with a major jump in opioid usage in the last year of the study, more than 8 percent and double the rate of many of the other drugs in question. Excluding that year, the rates are essentially in line with the others. Ironically, this major increase occurred the first year in more than 20 years that there were less prescriptions filled than the year prior. Naturally though, the government sided with the report.
So, we have a group of legislators who have consistently failed throughout multiple decades to bring about sustentative change once again telling us the problem is not that we're regulating too harshly, but rather that we aren't regulating harshly enough. This time, in spite of their contradictory evidence, blatant omissions and, of course, the rampant negative effects of a bloated bureaucracy caving under its own dogma. The worst part though, is not the lost money or the nightmare of red tape, but rather, the people who have to suffer because of it.
I suffer from chronic pain and, just like millions of other Americans, I've had to navigate the healthcare industrial complex in a futile attempt to simply function normally. Between the 15+ drugs I've been prescribed over half a year to try to treat my condition—none of them being opioids—I've had to miss school, work, birthday parties, social events and even spent a whole weekend in bed, all the while getting nothing that works. What I did get was a headache, nausea, severe loss of concentration, a $700 medicine and a $750 MRI and even an inability to urinate.
Finally, after nearly everything else has been ruled out, I might finally get relief. I don't blame my doctor though, he's working with the system he was given, and I'm thankful that my condition isn't worse. Getting a more potent painkiller can take years, if you ever get it. The one thing NIDA got right is that many people do turn to the streets because they can't get relief, but whose fault is that really?