Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Substance Abuse In The United States

By Nethan ReddyPublished November 2, 2015

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Recent rises in illicit drug use, in particular painkillers, have raised national concern over the problem of substance abuse. President Obama, as well as current presidential candidates, have announced plans to combat this widespread issue.
Substance abuse is an epidemic in America, and new reports show that it is affecting nearly everyone. In a given month, 9.4 percent of the population aged 12 and up have used an illicit drug (up from 8.3 percent in 2002), a number that jumps to 22.6% amongst 18 to 20 year olds. There has even been an increase in illicit drug use amongst the baby boomer population. Within the population demographic of 50 to 54 year olds, illicit drug use has increased 3.4% in 2002 to 7.9% in 2013.
    Widespread heroin abuse has been singled out as a particularly alarming trend, with the Center for Disease Control reporting that the number of people who have used heroin in the past year has doubled since 2002, while heroin overdose rates have quadrupled within the same time frame. Public health researchers have found a significant driving factor of this trend: more people abusing opioid (precursor to heroin), a substance present in medications doctors prescribe to relieve pain. 259 million opioid painkillers have been prescribed in 2012, enough for each American to have a bottle of the pills. Patients are at risk for abusing painkillers when health care providers prescribe them without being fully aware of their risks. If patients do develop a drug addiction from these prescription painkillers, then finding treatment that takes it into account is another added complication.
    President Obama recently addressed this concern at a forum held in Charleston, West Virginia, a state known as the epicenter of the epidemic, with a drug overdose death rate double the national average. He spoke of his plan to have federal agencies train health care providers on prescribing painkillers and helping patients get through obstacles to medication-assisted treatment in the insurance plans they provide. The administration projects about 540,000 health care providers receiving this training within the next two years. Another goal involves the doubling of doctors able to prescribe buprenorphine, an opiate addiction treatment drug, from 60,000 to 30,000 within the next three years.
Particular attention has been paid to a drug called Naxolene, which can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose. Plans were made to increase the availability of the drug by doubling the number of health care providers that could provide it and pharmacies that would be able to supply it in an effort to offset deaths from overdose. So far, 40 medical groups have announced their cooperation with the administration in working to effect these changes. Despite many states already expanding access to Naxolene, some remain wary of investing in drugs that are only useful in cases of overdose. It has no potential to directly confront the overall, underlying problem of heroin addiction. In total, the administration predicts the policy will cost 133 million dollars to implement. Already, more than forty medical care providers have stated their cooperation with the administration in a collective effort to effect these changes.
As with any policy concerns, the upcoming presidential election has encouraged many candidates to offer their own insight on how to best curb addiction within the population. For example, Hillary Clinton recently publicized a 10 billion dollar proposal dedicated to combating addiction that dwarfs the administration's proposed budget for the initiatives described above.