During the Covid-19 pandemic, another epidemic has been raging in the US, largely unnoticed: the opioid crisis. As the number of drug overdose deaths reaches a record high in the US, researchers have identified several science-backed actions that could be taken at a federal level, and are indeed part of the federal government’s plan to address the crisis.
There are four general categories of opioid policy that are supported by strong evidence: curbing the drug supply, improving addiction treatment, harm reduction, and addressing the root causes of drug use.
Curbing the drug supply
Reducing drug supply can be achieved by standard efforts like disrupting drug markets and securing international cooperation such as that of Mexico with the US in the past. However, we can also start to examine why opioids are prescribed by doctors at such high rates. Encouraging doctors to prescribe fewer addictive drugs with increasing regulation surrounding opioid prescription could also be a potential solution.
Improving addiction treatment
Instead of attacking the drug supply, funding addiction treatment could be a better solution. There are decades of evidence that says using medications like methadone can cut mortality rates by half and keep patients in treatment longer. Unfortunately, addiction treatment isn’t affordable and accessible in many areas, which could be solved by increased funding and the development of affordable treatment centers.
Harm reduction is an approach that acknowledges that the use of drugs will never be totally eradicated and seeks to minimize damage. Needle exchanges distribute clean needles and safely dispose of dirty ones, and have been proved to limit disease spread, lower the number of discarded needles in public, and introduce more people to treatment options.
Addressing the root causes of drug use
Lastly, a more long-term approach is to reduce the use of drugs by addressing common causes such as poverty. These solutions include affordable housing, improved income equality, accessible healthcare, and stronger public education systems.
All of these solutions require complex collaboration between government agencies, medical facilities, and philanthropic services, but each of these, or more likely a combination of all of them, would provide much-needed action on the growing epidemic of opioid addiction in the US.