CAC Cactus

The Tragedy of Arizona’s Opioid Epidemic

Nick Feldman, Cactus Writer

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Have you ever gotten your wisdom teeth pulled, broken your arm, had surgery, or perhaps found yourself in any situation that caused so much pain that the doctor had to prescribe you something along the lines of Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortabs) and/or Oxycodone (Percocet, Oxycontin)?  I, personally, have been prescribed such medications, multiple times for various reasons.  If you have been prescribed such substances, have you ever noticed a certain amount of euphoria, a warm glowing feeling in your body, and relaxation that occur when you ingest the doctor’s med? This is normal for these medications because they cause such feelings even at low dosages, and the euphoria only grows as your dosage increases.  You may have never been aware that you were taking an extremely addictive substance, guaranteed to cause physical and psychological addiction if taken for too long.

Both of these narcotic medications mentioned above fall under the category of drugs called opioids, the same family of substances that includes heroin, fentanyl, opium, morphine, and codeine.  All opioids are extremely addictive as a result of the psychoactive effect they have on the brain (the euphoria, an intense feeling of well-being).

Right now, in Arizona, we are experiencing an extreme epidemic of addiction on the streets, mostly to very potent drugs such as heroin and Oxycontin.   It has gotten so bad, that the President of the United States has declared it a national public health emergency. This epidemic ruins lives on a daily basis, and users will many times die of an overdose if they take too much, or mix the drugs with alcohol or other substances, especially if they are using the drugs intravenously (directly to the bloodstream from a needle to a vein).

The Arizona Department of Health Services provides real-time opioid data on their website.  In Arizona alone, there are suspected 564 deaths related to opioids, and 4,153 suspected opioid overdoses simply between June and November (the past 5 months) of this year alone, whereas last year there was a total of 790 deaths for the entire year.

For some reason, right now addiction to opioids is extremely common in Arizona, as many times the drug will grab the user and not let go. Once addicted, the user’s brain is changed on a chemical level.  The pleasure center of the brain ignites like wildfire, and the body is tricked into thinking the user needs the drugs as much as they would food or water.  Think of what you would do if you were starving or dying of thirst. The body literally believes it is dying when one is addicted to opioids and runs out. Thus, addiction causes extreme personality changes in the user, such as retraction from family and friends, stealing, lying and even prostituting, all simply to obtain the expensive drugs on the street.

The epidemic is not exclusive to Arizona; it occurs all around the world, especially in first world countries.  That being said, Arizona is currently a hot spot for opioid addiction, especially in the valley, in cities such as Apache Junction, Mesa and Phoenix.

If you have an addictive gene to begin with, you are even more at risk of becoming addicted, sometimes even becoming psychologically attached after a mere few times of using (you may have this gene and not even know it until it’s too late).

Once the physical dependence and addiction occurs, the only way out of this horrible predicament is to go through terrible withdrawals, which includes symptoms such as extreme anxiety, depression, dysphoria, sweating, insomnia, vomiting, diarrhea, agitation, and a strong craving for the drug.  Many times, this is only treatable in inpatient detox and rehab facilities, and even then, the hold opioids have over users is so intense, they will often return to using their drug of choice, even after experiencing the hell of withdrawal.

If the user is ingesting one of the stronger opioids (especially heroin) through means of smoking, insufflation (snorting) and especially intravenously (these routes of administration provide much more intense feelings of euphoria when compared to oral ingestion, in addition to causing an addiction to the substance much quicker), many times they will die addicted to the drug, never getting clean, unless they seek help.

To prevent addiction to such insidious substances, if you ever find yourself prescribed an opioid, it is vital that you never take more than you are prescribed, and only take the medication for a short period of time (unless you have a chronic condition that requires you to take it for longer).  In short, listen to the doctor’s orders and never abuse your medication.  Also, to state the obvious, never try street drugs such as heroin, because while you may think you are impervious to addiction, you are at a high risk of becoming addicted just from trying the drug once.  There is no such thing as recreational heroin, Oxycontin or fentanyl use.

If you are unfortunate enough to be addicted already, you can call the toll-free and confidential Arizona hotline for alcohol and drug addiction at (888)-925-0329.  They can provide help, such as getting you into an inpatient facility (there are some state-run facilities that will help you detox for free, such as Community Bridges). Most importantly, NEVER be afraid to ask for help, whether it be from your doctor, your family, your friends or hotlines such as the one mentioned above.  There is no shame in admitting you have a problem, and that is the first step to recovery.

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1 Comment

One Response to “The Tragedy of Arizona’s Opioid Epidemic”

  1. Ben Steele on December 10th, 2017 6:44 pm

    The opioid crisis has served to show what substance use disorder looks like to a far larger population than previous rounds of substance use spikes. What we’ve found each round is that more than information shifts, empathy shifts are what help those struggling with substance use disorder.

    Empathy requires considering the full situation, without using terms like “junkie” or “addict.” In my position within HIV prevention, we like to use terms that put people first and acknowledge their humanity before characterizing their condition. For opioid use disorder, the accepted term in public health that we believe allows for people to feel less stigma is people who use drugs (PWUD, for short).

    When talking about PWUD, it’s important to distinguish behaviors borne out of situation from those directly caused by substance use disorder. Withdrawal, for example, is a set of symptoms caused by stopping opioid use and is accompanied by intense symptoms like nausea, sweating, and adverse emotional conditions. This syndrome will make it harder to stop using substances and is key in understanding substance use disorder. To alleviate this condition, the only requirement is to stimulate the opioid receptors, making another round of medication more logical than the very intense suffering withdrawal causes.

    Withdrawal is part of substance use disorder, but the behaviors the writer cites like lying and stealing already more driven by circumstance. Stigma and criminalization of medical problems make it hard to have open conversations about personal issues surrounding opioid use disorder–and that leads to even worse problems, like gaining access to recovery resources and safe injection supplies. That latter issue is particularly insidious; as people try to alleviate a very real medical condition as possible, Arizona’s criminalization of “paraphernalia” like syringes by people without a prescription ensures that they have limited resources for injection supplies. This increases risk to those seeking symptom alleviation for HIV and hepatitis C virus, both of which are bloodborne pathogens that can be transmitted through a shared needle. State drug policy only increases the chances of HIV and hepatitis C transmission while further stigmatizing people seeking to take a step towards lowering their risk while living with opioid use disorder.

    When reporting stories like this, it’s important to reach out to sources familiar with the lives of people affected. In Arizona, we have great activists doing this kind of work at Sonoran Prevention Works and Shot in the Dark. I hope that further reporting from The Cactus reaches out to these valuable community leaders to ensure that stories are accurate and don’t perpetuate stigma around opioid use disorder that significantly worsens risk of negative outcomes for people who use drugs.

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