The current opioid epidemic in America may seem like the first of its kind, but it’s actually the result of a long progression of importing addictive medicines into the United States for centuries. According to the Huffington Post, the pharmaceutical companies have been promoting the use of opioids for decades. The real problem, however, stems from deep in our nation’s past, when morphine first came on the scene in the 19th century.
According to historian Susan Zieger, author of Inventing the Addict, there are some stark parallels between the way we view drugs today and the way they were viewed in the 1860’s. Some of our biggest current concerns about the opioid epidemic involve doctors overprescribing dangerous medications, foreign cartels, such as the ones from Mexico, bringing in drugs illegally, and some of the controversial methods of treating addiction.
According to the Huffington Post, doctors prior to 1860 were mostly considered “healer and naturopaths.” A comparison may be the way some view the chiropractic or acupuncture profession today. While we now rely heavily on the scientific reliability of the medical community, it was quite different long ago. In 1860, doctors were itching to be viewed as members of a scientific community with proven, indisputable cures for ailments.
Furthermore, something very important happened during this time period. Hypodermic morphine was invented. Suddenly, doctors had a very valuable product on their hands. They could now give patients a true pain reliever, where as before, patients were suspect to natural, and often worthless remedies for pain. According to author Kate Bridges, “Doctors knew very little. Most of the time they just gave whisky. They knew enough to help some people-some with unknown herbs.” Therefore, the invention of morphine to treat pain must have been an incredible victory for the medical community. It was the miracle drug they had been looking for.
The pharmaceutical industry has long, historical roots in spreading and advertising opiates. In the 19th century after the discovery of morphine, there was a prevailing attitude amongst doctors that there was very little distinction between symptoms and diseases. In other words, if someone felt pain, it meant that giving something to kill the pain would actually treat the pain. Today, we know that painkillers like morphine simply mask the pain, but do not cure pain. This false prevailing line of thought in the 1860’s led to many different problems that we are still encountering today.
If a medicine is thought to cure pain, just like we think of chemotherapy killing cancer, then clearly, more doctors will be willing to give out the painkiller to patients. In other words, “Any change that could be effected in a patient’s symptoms was seen as acting on the disease; the more a treatment had on the patient, the better.” In layman’s’ terms, give out drugs that help pain, and the disease that causes pain will be cured.
Doctors were not concerned about potential negative side effects from the new wonder drug. 19th century physician Dr. Francis Anstie wrote, “Of danger-there is absolutely none. The advantages of the hypodermic injection of morphine over its administration by the mouth are immense … the majority of the unpleasant symptoms which opiates can produce are entirely absent … it is certainly the fact that there is far less tendency with hypodermic than with gastric medication to rapid and large increase of the dose.” It is hard to know whether the doctors were simply naive or if they had an alternative motive, which included the marketing and selling of the new drug to the general population.
The new drug was given for general, mild medical conditions, including menstrual cramps and headaches. It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that physicians began to notice the ill effects that morphine had on their patients. Morphine wasn’t treating the disease; it was simply creating new addicts.
The creation of morphine in the 19th century led to the creation of other pharmaceutical drugs in the 20th century. Today we have an onslaught of medications of the opioid class, which include hydrocodone, oxycontin, codeine, and more. Heroin became the drug of choice in the early 20th century for those who could not afford morphine or similar pharmaceutical drugs. Thus the negative connotation that heroin has with “lower class” people began, and the stereotype has persisted today. Ironically, heroin is simply a stronger, cheaper version of the same types of opiates that are prescribed to other patients by actual physicians.
Restrictions have been placed on many of these drugs, and doctors are less willing to prescribe them in the same way they did historically, but the problem still persists. These types of medications are given out at an astronomical rate. According to the CDC, “an estimated 1 out of 5 patients with non-cancer pain or pain-related diagnoses are prescribed opioids in office based settings.” Furthermore, an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States alone abuse opiates for non-medical reasons, according to statistics from Drugabuse.gov.
The opiate epidemic will continue to be a problem until more alterative methods of treating pain become readily available. Luckily, there are some alternative medications that can treat pain which do not pose the same threat of addictive properties. If physicians can find more treatments that actually cure pain, rather than mask it, there will be little reason to continue prescribing some of these dangerous drugs. Until then, the public will need to stay educated and aware of the danger of certain opiate drugs before they consider taking them after an injury.
Are you addicted to prescription opiates or other narcotics and aren’t sure where to turn? Contact Linda Rose at Footprints Behavioral Health and start your roadmap towards recovery. Call Linda directly at (949) 558-4723 today.