In the past 21 years, the toll on Americans from opioid overdoses is so large that it’s hard to grasp.
But a new study from Northwestern University suggests the worst is yet to come. First, let’s recall how we got here.
The first phase of the opioid crisis began in the 1990s in rural America, with prescription drugs that falsely claimed to be nonaddictive.
The second phase shifted to heroin, around 2010, as efforts to make prescription opioids harder to obtain took hold. The third wave began in 2013, as newer synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, began to kill users.
The study analyzed federal data and county trends in opioid-related deaths. It suggests we are already in the fourth wave. Making a bad thing worse, users combine synthetic opioids with stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamines, producing a lethal cocktail that doesn’t respond as well to overdose-reversing drugs like Narcan.
The study notes that for the first time, there is an escalation and convergence in opioid deaths rates in rural and urban counties.
And even more worrisome: Users are turning to carfentanil — a synthetic opioid that is roughly 100 times more potent than fentanyl — to mix with their preferred stimulants.
So, what’s to be done? The study suggests opening more methadone or buprenorphine [byoo·pruh·nor·feen] centers, which offer medication-aided treatments. They are typically found in urban areas, however, so more are needed in rural regions.
With billions from opioid-related lawsuit settlements set to begin flowing to cities and counties across the country, only time will tell if wise spending can stem the tide.