Opioid drugs can be powerfully effective treatments for those in pain, but they can also be extremely dangerous. This episode explores how opioids can lead to dependence, abuse and addiction, and the effects that opioid abuse have had in America. The episode explores how drug manufacturers, regulators, doctors, and patients have all contributed to the current crisis of opioid abuse.

Opioid Abuse

In 2014, more Americans died of drug overdoses than any other year on record: more than 47,000 deaths in just one year, according to new federal data. That’s far more than the nearly 34,000 who died in car crashes, the almost 34,000 who died due to gun violence, and the nearly 42,000 who died due to HIV/AIDS during that epidemic’s peak in 1995.

But this latest drug epidemic is not driven primarily by illicit drugs. It began with a legal drug: opioid painkillers.

Serious Pain

Back in the 1990s, doctors agreed — and many still do — that America has a serious pain problem: Tens of millions of Americans experienced debilitating pain, and it was left untreated. So they looked for a solution — and, fueled by a misleading marketing push from pharmaceutical companies, landed on opioid-based painkillers, widely known by brand names such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin. The drugs proliferated.

Devastating Results

But this led to unintended, devastating results. Prescription painkiller abuse went up, and overdose deaths linked to the drugs did as well. Then, as policymakers and doctors took notice of widespread opioid abuse, they pulled back access to the drugs. But federal data shows many of these drug users didn’t just quit the drugs altogether — some instead moved to a lower-cost, more potent opioid, heroin, and some are reportedly moving to the even stronger opioid, fentanyl.

As a result, nearly 29,000 deadly drug overdoses in 2014 — more than half of all overdose deaths that year — involved some type of opioid abuse.

Read more here.