Overdoses increased by 30% between 2016 and 2017; in order to face the crisis, the White House might consider following the “example” of Philippines
By Ignacio Torres – Tom Petty, American rock icon of the 70s, Prince, the star of 80s and 90s pop music, and actress Brittany Murphy all have something in common: they died from opioid overdoses in an attempt to soothe chronic pains and a cold. Petty and Prince overdosed taking fentanyl, a drug between 50 and 100 times more potent than morphine, and Murphy overdosed consuming hydrocodone, a codeine derivative also used as a cough medicine.
The difference was that Petty and Murphy had a medical prescription. Prince, on the other hand, had suffered an addiction to opioids and got them from a “dealer”, who revealed that the singer not only consumed them after a hip operation, but also to manage his nerves.
Regardless of how they obtained these drugs, which alleviate severe pain – especially in patients in advanced stages of illness, the three artists became part of the fatal statistics between 1999 and 2016 that add up to about 600,000 deaths due to overdose.
The multi-million dollar industry of fentanyl
Between 2010 and 2015, half of the counties in the US. The U.S. managed to reduce the amount of opioids prescribed for people, although the prescription remained high. In 2015, the doses prescribed per person were three times higher than those in 1999.
The black market, meanwhile, continued to be in charge of flooding the streets with opioids such as fentanyl, produced by cartel laboratories in Mexico and imports from China, according to US police and customs authorities.
In this huge illegal market, where a kilo of fentanyl can generate profits of up to US$ 20 million, one of the most recognized faces is that of Joaquín Guzmán, nicknamed “El Chapo” . This drug dealer – pending a trial against him – was the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel dedicated to introduce opioids to the US. The U.S. marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin coming from Colombia and Southeast Asia and also responsible for 80% of pure fentanyl seized in New York in 2017, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Death penalty and position of health experts
With the drug epidemic in every corner of the U.S. U.S., President Donald Trump announced a plan focused on: reducing the consumption of opioids through education, strengthening controls to cut the flow of illegal drugs and expanding treatment of addiction. However, the leader emphasized the need to toughen sanctions against traffickers, for which he proposed the death penalty. “If they are caught, they are sentenced to 30 days in jail or a fine, when for killing a person you are sentenced to death or life imprisonment,” Trump has said.
Now the question is – will the death penalty be the solution to this crisis? For some time now, Trump has defended the idea of imposing the maximum penalty on traffickers citing Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines as an example.
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This approach has sparked opposition among medical experts. Dr. Guohua Li, professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology at Columbia University, believes that: “Relying on the criminal justice system to address public health problems has proven to be reckless, expensive, and often counterproductive.”
For his part, the doctor Andrew Kolodny, co-director of Opioid Policy Research Collaborative (OPRC) and senior scientist at the Institute of Behavioral Health at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, thinks that: “Talking about the death penalty seems like a step backwards”.
However, Li made a slight distinction: “If it is implemented judiciously and with other more substantive and comprehensive interventions, it has the potential to be effective.”
Meanwhile, the epidemic is relentless. The overdose of opioids (legal and illegal) has increased by 30% in only 14 months between 2016 and 2017, according to the latest data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This percentage shows the deepening disaster of a crisis that as recently as 2016 claimed the lives of 64,000 people.