The Opioid Overdose Crisis

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Page last updated June 10, 2020 by Doug McVay, Editor/Senior Policy Analyst.

21. Prevalence Of Illegal Use of Prescription Drugs In The US

"In 2016, an estimated 6.2 million Americans aged 12 or older misused psychotherapeutic drugs at least once in the past month, which represent 2.3 percent of the population aged 12 or older (Figures 18 and 19). Of the four categories of prescription drugs that are presented in this report, prescription pain relievers were the most commonly misused by people aged 12 or older. The 6.2 million people aged 12 or older who misused prescription psychotherapeutic drugs in the past month included 3.3 million who misused prescription pain relievers in that period. Approximately 2.0 million people aged 12 or older misused prescription tranquilizers in the past month. An estimated 1.7 million people aged 12 or older misused prescription stimulants, and 497,000 (0.5 million) misused prescription sedatives in the past month.

"An estimated 389,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 misused psychotherapeutic drugs at least once in the past month, which rounds to the estimate of 0.4 million adolescents shown in Figure 19. Stated another way, about 1 in 60 adolescents (1.6 percent) were current misusers of psychotherapeutic drugs. An estimated 1.6 million young adults aged 18 to 25 were current misusers of psychotherapeutic drugs, which corresponds to 4.6 percent of young adults. There were 4.2 million adults aged 26 or older who were current misusers of psychotherapeutic drugs, or 2.0 percent of adults in this age group."

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 17-5044, NSDUH Series H-52). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from

22. Unrelieved Pain A Serious Health Problem In The US

"It is well-documented that unrelieved pain continues to be a serious public health problem for the general population in the United States.1-8 This issue is particularly salient for children,9-14 the elderly,15-19 people of racial and ethnic subgroups,20-24 people with developmental disabilities,25;26 people in the military or military veterans27-30 as well as for those with diseases such as cancer,31-36 HIV/AIDS,37-40 or sickle-cell disease.41-43 Clinical experience has demonstrated that adequate pain management leads to enhanced functioning and quality of life, while uncontrolled severe pain contributes to disability and despair.4;44"

Pain & Policy Studies Group, "Achieving Balance in State Pain Policy: A Progress Report Card (CY 2013)" (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, July 2014), p. 10.

23. Balancing Control And Availability Of Opioid Painkillers In Pain Management

"Because opioid analgesics have both a medical indication and an abuse liability, their prescribing, dispensing, and administration, indeed their very availability in commerce, is governed by a combination of policies, including international treaties and U.S. federal and state laws and regulations. The main purpose of these policies is drug control: to prevent diversion and abuse of prescription medications. However, international and federal policies also express clearly a second purpose of drug control, that being availability: recognizing that many opioids (referred to in law as narcotic drugs or controlled substances) are necessary for pain relief and that governments must ensure their adequate availability for medical and scientific purposes. When both control and availability are appropriately recognized in public policy, and implemented in everyday practice, this is referred to as a balanced approach (American Medical Association?Department of Substance Abuse, 1990; Cooper, Czechowicz, Petersen, & Molinari, 1992; Drug Enforcement Administration et al., 2001; Fishman, 2012; Gilson, 2010a; Gilson, Joranson, Maurer, Ryan, & Garthwaite, 2005; Joranson & Dahl, 1989; Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2011; Woodcock, 2009; World Health Organization, 2011a)."

Pain & Policy Studies Group. Achieving Balance in Federal and State Pain Policy: A Guide to Evaluation (CY 2013). (University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center: Madison, WI, July 2014), p. 17.

24. Substance Use Disorders and Effective Pain Treatment

"Persons with substance use disorders are less likely than others to receive effective pain treatment (Rupp and Delaney, 2004). The primary reason is clinicians' concern that they may misuse opioids. Although mild to moderate pain can often be treated effectively with a combination of physical modalities (e.g., ice, rest, and splints) and nonopioid analgesics (e.g., nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDs], acetaminophen, or other adjuvant medications), management of severe pain, especially when cancer-related, often requires opioids. Moreover, physicians are increasingly using opioids to treat chronic non-cancer-related pain, and an emerging body of evidence suggests that, for some patients, this approach both reduces pain and may foster modest improvements in function and quality of life (Devulder, Richarz, and Nataraja, 2005; Haythornthwaite et al., 1998; Kalso et al., 2004; Martell et al., 2007; Noble et al., 2008; Passik et al., 2005; Portenoy et al., 2007; Portenoy and Foley, 1986)."

Savage, Seddon R., Kenneth L. Kirsh, and Steven D. Passik. "Challenges in Using Opioids to Treat Pain in Persons With Substance Use Disorders." Addiction Science & Clinical Practice 4.2 (2008): 4–25.

25. Law Enforcement's "Chilling Effect" on Pain Treatment

"The under-treatment of pain is due in part to a kind of undesirable 'chilling effect.' The concept of a chilling effect, generally, is a useful law enforcement tool. When publicity surrounding a righteous prosecution 'chills' related criminal conduct, that chilling effect is intended, appropriate, and a public good. A chilling effect on the appropriate use of pain medicine, however, is not a public good. Recent research by members of the Law Enforcement Roundtable confirms that prosecutions of doctors for diversion of prescription drugs are rare.2 But, on occasion, overly-sensationalized stories of investigation of doctors have hit the nightly news. When that happens, the resulting chilling effect reaches far beyond a 'good' chilling effect on bad actors, and directly affects appropriate medical practice. The consequence is extreme, and not what law enforcement would ever seek – our parents and other loved ones who are in pain simply cannot get the medicines they need."

"Balance, Uniformity and Fairness: Effective Strategies for Law Enforcement for Investigating and Prosecuting the Diversion of Prescription Pain Medications While Protecting Appropriate Medical Practice," Center for Practical Bioethics (Kansas City, MO: February 2009), p. 3.