In 2015, more Americans died of drug overdoses than any other year on record — more than 52,000 deaths in just one year. That's higher than the more than 38,000 who died in car crashes, the more than 36,000 who died from gun violence, and the more than 43,000 who died due to HIV/AIDS during that epidemic's peak in 1995.
This latest drug epidemic, however, is not solely about illegal drugs. It began, in fact, with a legal drug.
As a result, opioid overdose deaths trended up — sometimes involving opioids alone, other times involving drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines (typically prescribed to relieve anxiety). By 2015, opioid overdose deaths totaled more than 33,000 — close to two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths.
Seeing the rise in opioid misuse and deaths, officials have cracked down on prescriptions painkillers. Law enforcement, for instance, threatened doctors with incarceration and the loss of their medical licenses if they prescribed the drugs unscrupulously.
Ideally, doctors should still be able to get painkillers to patients who truly need them (and they can work for some individual chronic pain patients) — after, for example, evaluating the patient's history of drug addiction. But doctors, who weren’t conducting even such basic checks, are now being told to give more thought to their prescriptions.
Yet many people who lost access to painkillers are still addicted. So some who could no longer obtain painkillers turned to cheaper, more potent opioids: heroin and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.
Not all painkiller users went this way, and not all opioid users started with painkillers. But statistics suggest many did: A 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry found 75 percent of heroin users in treatment started with painkillers, and a 2015 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who are addicted to painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.
So other types of opioid overdoses, excluding painkillers, also rose.
That doesn't mean pulling back on the number of painkiller prescriptions was a mistake. It appeared to slow the rise in painkiller deaths, and likely prevented doctors from prescribing opioids to new generations of people with drug use disorders.
Some states, like Florida and Indiana, have taken a "tough on crime" approach that focuses on incarcerating drug traffickers. But the incarceration approach has been around for decades — and it hasn’t stopped massive drug epidemics like the current crisis.