North America’s opiate crisis has followed a linear, almost predictable script, like a tragedy in five acts piling grief upon grief in an arduous, tedious dirge with no relief (or end) in sight.
First, pharmaceutical companies and doctors conspired—sometimes unwittingly, sometimes deliberately—to flood the country with pain pills. Then, when law enforcement crackdowns on “pill mills” made prescription opiates scarce and black-market pills exorbitantly expensive, heroin use surged—and with it, deaths from drug overdoses.
From there, the crisis has only escalated, with awful, steadfast speed.
In some areas, overdose deaths doubled from 2015 to 2016—the year an opiate overdose killed Prince—because the drug supply is now infested with powerful and deadly synthetic opiates like fentanyl. Why buy poppy-derived heroin from cartel types when you can go online and buy official-looking fentanyl, which is then shipped to you, via the legal mails, from otherwise-respectable drug labs?
As much as 80 percent of the heroin in some areas contains fentanyl, according to a recent study. But not just heroin.
In Vancouver, intravenous drug users can take advantage of “safe-injection sites.” Users can avail themselves of clean needles, a safe environment and the supervision of a health worker—who can then connect the drug user to services, or inject an overdosing user with Narcan, if necessary. Safe-injection sites are also one of the few reliable avenues available to health workers for collecting data.
As the Vancouver Sun reported, drug users at Insite, one of the city’s safe-injection sites, were also able to have their drug supply tested before they took a hit. More than 1,000 users had their drugs tested. And more than 80 percent of heroin tested was found to be laced with fentanyl.
It gets worse.
Eighty percent of the crystal meth also had fentanyl in it—and, demonstrating that it’s not just heroin users who must beware, 40 percent of cocaine also had the synthetic opiate.
But there’s good news, sort of.
When drug users discover that their stash has fentanyl in it, they don’t use. Or at least they use less, as Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, a medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health, told the Sun. Users who checked their drugs before using were 10 times as likely to cut their dose and 25 percent less likely to overdose, the study found.
Either way, the likelihood of an overdose and subsequent accidental death plummets.
Sixty percent of British Columbia’s 900 overdose deaths in 2016 were linked to fentanyl—a ghastly body count, and a tiny one compared to the death rate in hard-hit areas in America like Ohio and West Virginia.
“Street drugs are costing lives, and this research confirms what we’ve long known—that supervised injection sites and drug checking can prevent unnecessary deaths,” said Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International, in comments to the Sun.
This publication and many others have pointed to research that consistently shows how the availability of cannabis reduces opiate use and overdoses, but safe-injection sites—and the ability of drug users to see if the $20 bag they just bought will kill them—are another common-sense public-health approach to solving the opiate crisis… which have also escaped this country’s shot-callers.
Somehow, safe-injection sites have not won many fans in the United States, even in the country’s most liberal areas. In San Francisco, there’s a pilot program afoot to see if a safe-injection site would work. According to a recent study, just one 13-booth safe-injection site could save $3.5 million a year in medical costs—and, inevitably, it would save some lives.
Whether America gets wise to this and adopts a common-sense solution or keeps peddling exploded myths that get people killed remains to be seen. But considering the characters currently taking the stage—for instance, the boss man in charge of Donald Trump’s opiate crisis commission believes that marijuana is a liberal plot to poison children—there are a few deadly acts left in this particular farce.
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