Human Rights and the Opioid Crisis

The opioid crisis in the United States is a plague that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, and it needs to be addressed. The Center for Disease Control has categorized the opioid crisis as an epidemic, and its presence is felt from cities to rural areas. Every day 91 Americans die from opioid overdoses. Since 1999, the number of opioid overdose deaths has quadrupled. The opioid crisis in the United States has been made into a criminal issue for the black community and a public health issue for the white community, but it is truly a human rights issue that the United States needs to treat as such.

The black community in the US has long struggled with opioid addiction, which politicians and media have used to demonize them. Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs”, which began in the 1980s and had ramifications through the 1990s to present day, put hundreds of thousands of black people in prison. As part of the War on Drugs, there were mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession, even in trace amounts, and it disproportionally targeted black people. Today, every 25 seconds, an American is arrested for possessing drugs for their personal use. African Americans are imprisoned for drug charges at six times that of whites, despite similar drug usage rates between the two groups. Through this campaign, black addiction to drugs was deemed a problem with the black community specifically, rather than a problem spanning across all races. It was an epidemic and a human rights issue in the 1980s and 1990s, but was not treated like one. Instead, it was made into an innate failing of the black population.

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In recent years, the opioid crisis in the United States has taken on a new precedent. Doctors have begun prescribing opioid painkillers more and more; between 1991 and 2013, prescriptions for opioid painkillers went from 76 million to 207 million per year. Americans got addicted to these painkillers, moving sometimes to heroin for cheaper and better highs. As an increasing number of white Americans fall victim to opioid overdoses, the media has taken a new stance on the epidemic. Now, videos of children sobbing next to collapsed, overdosing parents in supermarkets are the norm on the nightly news cycle. Sympathy for these families is at an all-time high. It is an “epidemic” rather than a “war”. Politicians have now taken up the epidemic with more compassion and a healing perspective. The Trump administration has made the crisis a central issue, promising crisis-ending plans and funding. However, many doubt that the plan will be as effective as necessary, lacking the breadth and elements crucial to ending the epidemic.

In addition to the sheer number of deaths, there are a multitude of collateral consequences as a result of the opioid crisis. Those addicted to opioids are not living alone, without families or without an impact on their community. Children born into opioid addicted families are now filling the foster care system, with unique needs that the system struggles to provide for. Foster parents endeavor to care for children whose needs surpass normal expectations. They need daily shots of methadone to curb the screams and shakes of the addiction of which they are born. For the rest of their lives, they will have particular needs to just be healthy, not even taking into account the trauma of being orphans. The most shocking reality is that their parents did not have to die.

In the past decade, the drug naloxone has proven to be a method to save lives on the brink of death from overdose. The drug halts the spread of opioids throughout the body, preventing the opioids from attaching to neurons. The side effects are dizziness, nausea, shaking, and sweating, but certainly not death. There are countless stories of the drug saving lives with just a shot or a spray into the nose.

To continue saving lives, the United States should make a wider effort to put naloxone in the pockets of emergency medical staff, police officers, and other first responders. This is a crisis, and every American deserves the right to live and recover from addiction. Some argue that providing naloxone widely would lead to an increasing use of opioids. Bertha Madras, deputy drug czar to President Bush, told National Public Radio that users should not have access to naloxone because “sometimes having an overdose, being in an emergency room, having that contact with a healthcare professional, is enough to make a person snap into the reality of the situation and snap into having someone give them services”. This has proven, though, to not be a productive means of curbing the crisis. Since the Bush administration, deaths have continued to climb, with no end in sight. People are still dying at the expense of this “tough love” mentality. We need to save these lives, so that they can have the chance at recovery. No person would pause in using a lifesaving drug for cancer or heart disease; any hesitation in allowing for the use of naloxone is taking away a person’s right to survive.

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