Every day, at least two people die from opioid overdoses in Arizona. Within the past few years, we’ve seen the opioid crisis spread exponentially throughout our state. This boom has largely been due to a rapid increase in the distribution of fentanyl and other synthetic substances.
So, what is the current state of opioid use in Arizona, and how are we actively fighting to end this epidemic and save lives? Let’s find out.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a class of drugs found naturally in the opium poppy plant. As a pain reliever, these drugs alter the chemicals in your brain to produce morphine-like effects. Some opioids are prescribed painkillers, like OxyContin and Vicodin. Prescription pain medications can be very effective for treating expected and intense short-term pain, like recovery after surgery. They are not as effective for long-term pain management because they increase your sensitivity to pain over repeated use.
Other opioids come in the form of heroin, an illegal drug, or fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s up to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Its recent rise in popularity can be attributed to two things. First, it’s cheaper to produce than heroin and other opioids. Second, it’s much more potent, so less of the substance can be used to achieve the same high. Given the ever-growing number of opioid addicts, fentanyl’s low cost and abundant availability make it the ideal substance for dealers to sell. But regardless of whether they were prescribed by a doctor or illegally sold on the street, all opioids have one thing in common: addictiveness.
What Is the Risk of Addiction?
Up to 29% of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and between 8% and 12% of those people develop an opioid use disorder over time. Some users start out with a legal prescription, then become addicted. In these cases, an overdose generally occurs when the person unintentionally
purchases opioids that have been cut with fentanyl or other dangerous synthetics. Others start out with a heroin addiction and eventually seek out its stronger cousin, fentanyl. Every situation is different, yet equally dangerous.
When you’re addicted to opioids, the cravings often feel uncontrollable — and the withdrawal process is quite brutal. Nausea, tremors, vomiting and high fevers are just a few among the long list of symptoms one may encounter. That’s why for many, this addiction becomes a death sentence. Fifty thousand of the nearly 2 million active addicts in the U.S. last year died from an opioid overdose.
How is Opioid Addiction Treated?
Opioid use disorder is generally treated through a combination of medication and counseling. Medication helps reduce cravings and withdrawals by reversing the neurochemical circuitry the drugs caused. Medication-assisted counseling helps people develop new coping mechanisms and pain management strategies, as well as deal with stressors in their daily lives.
Buprenorphine, methadone and extended-release naltrexone can be effective treatments in terms of medication. Also, in emergency situations, naloxone can help prevent respiratory arrest from an opioid overdose. As for counseling, programs like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and various support groups help many overcome their addictions.
Facts and Stats
- Opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. have doubled since 2010 and quadrupled since 1999.
- More than 70% of drug overdose deaths in 2019 involved an opioid.
- In 2015, synthetic opioids contributed to only 18% of all overdose deaths; in 2020, this figure rose to over 60%.
- In 2020, 93,331 people in the U.S. died from an opioid overdose, 1,982 of which were Arizonans.
- 136,720 opioid prescriptions were administered in Arizona within the last month.
- Arizona currently ranks 12th in the nation for misusing and abusing prescription drugs and has the 12th highest drug overdose mortality rate in the country, with more than 20 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 people.
What Is Arizona Doing About the Opioid Crisis?
Governor Doug Ducey declared the epidemic to be a Public Health Emergency back in 2017. Shortly after, the state created the Opioid Action Plan. A second version launched in 2019, which is still in effect today. Here are some of its key components:
- Improve access to treatment.
- Enhance quality of treatment for substance use disorder and chronic pain.
- Reduce stigma.
- Enhance prevention and early intervention.
- Improve prescribing and dispensing practices.
- Enhance data quality and dissemination of actionable information on deaths from all drugs.
When it comes to fighting the opioid crisis, harm reduction has proven to be a more effective strategy than staunch anti-drug tactics. Last year, for example, the federal government granted Arizona more than $20 million in State Opioid Response funds. This grant supports our state’s efforts to increase medication-assisted treatment, build awareness of opioid risk and provide naloxone to reduce the number of fatal opioid overdoses.
As we continue to fight against this epidemic in Arizona, we can all do small things to keep ourselves and others safe. Talk to your kids about the realities of addiction. Check in on your loved ones often. Use natural or over-the-counter remedies after your next minor procedure instead of painkillers. Incorporate cognitive behavioral therapy into your pain management process instead of solely relying on medications. Remember, the easiest way to end an addiction is to never start one.