During the Uprising in Baltimore, police said more than 27 pharmacies and two methadone clinics were looted for pain medications and other prescription drugs. City officials estimate that, as a result of looting, there are now more than 175,000 doses of prescription pain medications available for black market purchase. The influx of prescription drugs being sold on the streets of Baltimore will likely increase demand and the possibility of attracting a new group of users—many of whom could become addicted. However, this increased supply is limited and soon opioid users will need a new source to satisfy their addiction. As a cheaper alternative to pain medication, heroin becomes an attractive, and more potent, substitute.
Dependence on opioids is increasing at an alarming rate in communities across the U.S. In 2013, one in five persons who used illicit drugs for the first time started with prescription pain medication. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there were approximately 6.5 million people using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes, with 4.5 million of those misusing pain relievers. Such a significant amount of non-medical use of prescription drugs increases the likelihood of future overdoses. In this blog post, OSI’s Program Director for Drug Addiction Treatment, Scott Nolen, discusses the connection between misuse of prescription drugs and heroin and its devastating impact across the country and in Maryland.
Addiction does not discriminate by race, age, gender or class. As the reality of the size of this problem has become clearer to families and communities in Baltimore and across the state, a moment for action is upon us. More systematic, and compassionate, communication is needed to increase awareness of overdose prevention methods and addiction treatment options.
Building on a plan OSI-Baltimore launched more than 10 years ago with the city Health Department to train people at risk of an opiate overdose on how to administer naloxone (an overdose reversal drug), the OSI Drug Addiction Treatment program has extended these efforts to provide naloxone training to Baltimore police officers and others likely to witness an overdose. Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen has announced the launch of the first components of the city’s expanded overdose prevention plan. Goals include training more individuals on how to administer naloxone, developing a more efficient system of collecting data in order to provide better treatment, and increasing access to treatment.
Commissioner Wen’s plan does not just focus on government action—community participation is essential to address this epidemic. While the city does have agencies specifically tasked with addressing addiction, real change is not possible without community support. It is our individual responsibility to do our part to create healthy, supportive communities. We need to urge physicians to begin to look at alternatives to opioids and to move away from the mindset of automatically writing prescriptions for painkillers. We need to work with police officers to adopt compassionate policing and to refer individuals to treatment rather than sending them to jail. And, we need to work within our communities, and in schools, to provide more education and create safe spaces for individuals, of all ages, to seek treatment.
The vast majority of people in Baltimore during the Uprising displayed a commendable level of solidarity. Before the sun came out that Tuesday morning, people were sweeping the streets and cleaning up damaged businesses. This is the approach we should take when confronting the effects of addiction: Brush aside the stigma and help support those in need. In order to achieve the strong and vibrant Baltimore that we are all striving to build, we must develop a unified community response to addiction that is compassionate, coherent and comprehensive.