The term “war on drugs” conjures images of Reagan Era public service videos: the shady dealer dispensing trafficked narcotics on an inner-city street corner.

But the reality has shifted dramatically. The combined social and economic cost of so-called “street drugs”—cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana—is not nearly as high as that of pills easily found in the average American’s medicine cabinet. These drugs can also be found behind a retail counter, dispensed by a smiling clerk in the name of customer service. For 17 years, pharmaceuticals have enjoyed a supply chain and distribution courtesy of Fortune 500 companies. More importantly, these drugs have thrived under governmental inattention and oversight.

Below are five surprising facts about America’s prescription opiate epidemic:


1. Opiate addiction is not a new phenomenon.

Americans’ obsession with opiates goes way back — all the way to the American Civil War. To reduce pain, legions of wounded soldiers were shot up with Morphine on the battlefield. This left just as many soldiers wholly addicted after the war. In 1874, Bayer synthesized a supposed safer derivative of morphine: heroin. The 20th century painfully dispelled this supposition, as it suffered two major periods of widespread Heroin addiction.


2. More than half of deaths from drug overdose are from prescription painkillers.

Four times as many fatal overdoses occurred in 2010 as 1999. Oxycontin, Opana, and Percocet take more lives than heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine combined. Oxycontin misuse is especially rampant among womenevery hour a baby is born addicted to opiates.


3. America consumes 80% of the world’s opiate supply.

This is equal to 100 tons worth of opiates. In the same 10 year span 125,000 people died, and painkiller production increased six-fold. In 2012, enough opiates were prescribed to keep every American adult high for a month.


4. Fatal overdoses are often funded by taxpayers.

Using government-funded Medicaid and Medicare as their insurance providers, patients are able to illegally leverage several doctors for excessive prescriptions costing taxpayers over $10,000 per year. Medicaid funds about a death per day in particularly stricken states such as Washington. These costs are not limited within the healthcare system. In fact, all the externalities involved make up what the New York Times is calling an “opioid economy.”


5. The FDA expressly approved the “safe and necessary” use of Oxycontin for the American public.

Purdue Pharma’s 1996 debut of Oxycontin was hailed as a profession-wide win against pain. Academic journals published studies downplaying any addiction risks of Oxycontin. Purdue insisted the risk of addiction was rare in videos sent to physicians nationwide. While a similar video was also sent to the FDA, the FDA did not review the Oxycontin marketing video until 2002, by which point the drug had been responsible for nearly 20,000 fatal overdoses. In 2007, Purdue paid $600 million in civil settlements to its victims’ families.

Image credit: jrawle via flickr

About The Author

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Law student, UNC

Ward Collins graduated with a BA in Economics from UNC-Chapel Hill. His senior thesis analyzed the rise of retail banking in the American South. Since graduation, he has coached football at Lenoir-Rhyne University and Franklin High School. As a first-year law student at UNC, he plans to practice Education Law, representing the school systems of North Carolina.