A Counterattack on America’s Opioid Epidemic Rumbles to Life

USA map with drugs faded in

Across America, families are struggling and suffering from the effects of our opioid epidemic. In millions of households, one or more individuals are compelled every day to find a supply of an opioid like OxyContin, hydrocodone, morphine or heroin and consume it. They risk their lives and their freedom but they feel they have no choice. Mothers and fathers are losing sons and daughters, children of all ages have lost parents—there has been far too much death, loss and heartbreak. Now, there are signs that the resources of America are rumbling to life to fight this insidious enemy that has cost us so much.

What Has the Cost Been?

The most unbearable cost has been human life. Some families have lost more than one person they loved—an intolerable cost. From 1999 to 2016, more than 630,000 people have died from drug overdoses. About two-thirds of those deaths resulted from an overdose of an opioid, either prescription or illicit.

And then there is the financial burden that is shared by all taxpayers. The estimated cost from just the misuse of opioids in 2015 was a staggering $504 billion. This number has increased steadily for the past two decades as the opioid epidemic has claimed more victims.

But just now, we might be on the verge of gaining the upper hand. Definite action by federal legislatures and agencies appear to gaining momentum as they fight back at the causes of this problem.

Signs of Change

This was never going to be a fast problem to overcome. It was always going to take action on many fronts to quell this destructive force. Structuring and coordinating these efforts so they were effective was always going to take some time. But now, signs of concrete progress are showing up.

An announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in August 2018 outlined some of these recent actions. These actions from his announcement in Cleveland and some other recent signs of progress are listed below.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions/ Photo by Taidgh Barron / Shutterstock.com
  1. Two doctors in Northern Ohio have been charged with illegal distributing opioid painkillers. One of them has also been accused of Medicare fraud and accepting a $175,000 kickback from a manufacturer of liquid fentanyl. A civil injunction was filed to prevent them from prescribing any more drugs.
  2. “Operation Darkness Falls” resulted in the arrest of several individuals in Ohio and elsewhere who are accused of importing and selling fentanyl, Xanax or other drugs. One Ohio couple arrested during this operation was described as the most prolific vendor of fentanyl in America. The couple’s multiple online sales accounts have completed more than 4,000 transactions. During this operation, a total of seven criminals were arrested, most of whom have already pleaded guilty.
  3. A 43-count indictment was filed against a Chinese father and son accused of manufacturing and shipping synthetic narcotics to 25 countries and 37 U.S. states. Their drugs were directly involved in causing at least two overdose deaths in Ohio. This organization manufactured and sold illicit opioids and counterfeit Adderall. An American who received their products and reshipped them around the U.S. tried to flee the country, was arrested and has already pleaded guilty.
  4. In April, Mr. Sessions announced a cooperative effort between the Drug Enforcement Administration and 48 states to share prescription drug information so they can better fight opioid abuse.
  5. In July, Mr. Sessions announced that prosecutors in districts with the highest rates of death from synthetic opioids (this refers to fentanyl and hundreds of similar formulations being manufactured illicitly) will be prosecuting every case involving these drugs, no matter the size.
  6. The Justice Department has also started a special task force to prosecute companies and individuals anywhere on the opioid supply chain, from pharmaceutical companies to street gangs. The complaint against the two Ohio doctors listed above is one of the results of this task force.

In other recent news, President Trump asked Sessions to bring a major lawsuit against drug companies involved in the manufacture, marketing or distribution of opioids. There are currently more than 1,000 lawsuits filed against these companies by states, counties, cities and other organization like hospitals.

But in June 2018, the State of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker and marketer of OxyContin. What made this lawsuit unique was that the state’s Attorney General didn’t just file the lawsuit against the corporation. This lawsuit also individually names the company's executives.

One More Sign of Improvement

The number of deaths from drug overdoses has been increasing for the last couple of decades, dating back to the increase in prescribing of addictive painkillers. Finally, there is a little light at the end of the tunnel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitor and report on overdoses deaths on a monthly basis. Every month, you can review the number of overdose deaths for the past twelve month period. A review of these statistics shows that we are starting to see a small downtown of drug overdose deaths.

This chart shows the total number of drug overdose deaths for the prior 12-month period, reported by month.( For the most recent months, the figure is an estimate based on previous trends because not all autopsies and toxicology reports will be complete.)

Drug overdose death statistics from the CDC through January 2018.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on overdoses deaths on a monthly basis.

Here’s the way the numbers look from July 2017 through January 2018:

  • July: 71,813 (for the 12-month period ending July 31, 2017)
  • August: 72,634
  • September: 73,157
  • October: 73,057
  • November: 72,828
  • December: 72,287
  • January 2018: 71,568

Yes, this is a small change. What we would all like to see is a dramatic and sweeping change to this situation. Unfortunately, societal changes are not really made this way. It is no comfort to a family who woke up this morning to find they just lost someone they love. But it is a change in the right direction and it should not be ignored. With persistence, insistence and determination, we can, as communities and as a nation, bring these numbers down until we are saving tens of thousands of lives each year. And then we should continue until we are saving all of them.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.