The opioid epidemic is the most widespread and deadly drug crisis in the nation’s history. But there has been a long string of other such epidemics, each sharing chilling similarities with today’s unfolding tragedy, reported The Associated Press.
There was an outbreak after the Civil War when soldiers and others became addicted to a new pharmaceutical called morphine, one of the first of many man-made opioids. There was another in the early 1900s after a different drug was developed to help “cure” morphine addiction. It was called heroin.
Cocaine was also developed by drugmakers and sold to help morphine addiction. It cleared nasal passages, too, and became the official remedy of the Hay Fever Association. In 1910, President William H. Taft told Congress that cocaine was the most serious drug problem the nation had ever faced.
Over the next century, abuse outbreaks of cocaine, heroin, and other drugs like methamphetamine, marketed as a diet drug, would emerge and then fall back.
Alcohol and cigarettes were — and remain — the nation’s primary addictions. Both kill far more people than drugs. But since the middle of the century, there’s been wave after wave of other drug abuse outbreaks.
Amphetamines, developed in the 1930s, took off in the 1950s. Marketed by drug companies and promoted by doctors, they were used for weight loss, anxiety and depression. Methamphetamine, developed by the Burroughs Wellcome drug company, was often prescribed as a diet pill and abused by those attracted by the surge of energy it produced. Users who injected it were known as “speed freaks.”
Like the heroin surge before it, crack was seen as tied to urban blight and violent crime. This triggered a new drug war, including the “this is your brain on drugs” TV spots that showed frying eggs, and harsh jail sentences for the sale and possession of crack that were far more severe than the penalties for regular cocaine.
The crack epidemic died out in the 1990s, tailing off at roughly the same time both in cities that aggressively arrested people and cities that didn’t. Experts said the police crackdown contributed, but more important was society’s growing repulsion to the drugs. Families and communities were shattered by crack-related murders and arrests. The drug’s users came to be regarded as disgraceful “crackheads.” Even risk-taking kids, looking for new highs, started to avoid crack.
Health officials are fighting the opioid epidemic on three fronts: Preventing overdose deaths, helping people recover from addiction, and preventing new addictions.
There appears to be some success on the first front. The number of new addictions may be receding.
A recent federal report noted a downward trend in “opioid misuse” in adults younger than 50. Prescription rates are falling, though they remain far higher than years ago. And according to a closely watched University of Michigan study of adolescents, use of the opioids OxyContin and Vicodin has been low and falling for several years. In 2016, heroin use was the lowest in the survey’s 41-year history.
“I suspect we may be past the peak (of the epidemic), at least in terms of initiation,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy scholar at Carnegie Mellon University.
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