Opioid Abuse in California
Opioid abuse is a nationwide issue, and each state has unique challenges when it comes to curbing this worrisome trend. Opioids, primarily in the form of pain medication obtained through a prescription, are extremely habit-forming and put users at a high risk for physical dependence and painful withdrawal symptoms. In the U.S., California is one of the states most heavily impacted by widespread opioid abuse.
Opioid and Heroin Overdoses in California Increasing
California has witnessed a dramatic increase in opioid and heroin overdoses over the past decade. As of 2013, opioid and heroin overdoses occur as frequently as once every 45 minutes. Although opioid abuse affects the entirety of California, the health crisis is particularly pervasive in a few key areas.
Hospitals in the rural areas of California typically report higher rates of opioid overdoses than urban areas. Between 2006 and 2013, the number of overdoses in Shasta County surpassed a rate of eight overdoses per 100,000 residents – more than triple the state average. Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer counties also experienced overdose rates that outpaced the statewide average.
California’s Hardest-Hit Counties
Northern California experiences the highest rates of opioid use and abuse in California despite its sparsely distributed population. Counties in Northern California with the highest opioid overdose rates between 2006 and 2013 include:
- 332 overdoses occurred in Tuolumne County, a rate of 7.5 deaths per 100,000 residents.
- 454 overdoses occurred in Lake County, a rate of 8.8 deaths per 100,000 residents.
- 146 overdoses occurred in Plumas County, a rate of 9.1 deaths per 100,000 residents.
- 902 overdoses occurred in Humboldt County, a rate of 8.4 deaths per 100,000 residents.
Over the past decade, these counties have reported higher than average emergency room visit rates for opioid overdoses in addition to an increase in the number of recorded overdose deaths.
Data from the California Department of Public Health shows that more than 28,000 U.S. residents died from an opioid overdose in 2014 alone. Of those deaths, 2,024 were California residents, and a vast majority were caused by prescription opioids and heroin.
Prescription Drug Culture Increases Opioid Risks
There are numerous factors behind the opioid epidemic, but several trends implicate the pharmaceutical industry’s aggressive marketing strategies and lax attitudes toward patient education as contributing to the American public’s limited understanding about the dangers posed by opioids. Opioids are so habit-forming that even patients with legitimate ailments will invariably experience diminishing relief from their medication. Doctors must administer controlled increases in dosage to guarantee that patients achieve the desired level of pain relief.
Insufficient Education Has Deadly Consequences
Many patients take for granted that the medication prescribed to them by their doctors are completely benign. As a result, patients who are prescribed opioids don’t think to ask their doctors about the risks of overdose and physical dependence. Advocacy groups and lawmakers at federal, state and local levels have pushed legislative measures to encourage doctors to be more discerning in their prescription practices. Such laws would permit the prescription of opioid medication only when no other alternatives would suitably relieve the patient of their pain.
As a result of limited education on the risks of opioids, it’s not uncommon for patients to begin upping their own dosage after experiencing reduced pain relief from their prescription. Those that choose to increase their intake without consulting their doctors put themselves at a high risk for developing an addiction. Opioid users build up tolerance quickly, meaning that a patient’s desire to reduce their physical pain could rapidly transform into a dangerous physical dependence. Greater education is necessary to prevent individuals from unintentionally exposing themselves to addiction.
Ease of Access Encourages Physical Dependence
As patients continue to spiral further into addiction, they eventually find that they cannot indefinitely refill their prescriptions. Many turn to a practice known as “doctor shopping,” visiting several doctors for the same issue in rapid succession in an effort to obtain several prescriptions. Afterwards, opioid abusers will visit multiple pharmacies to have the prescriptions filled at each one. This tactic makes it easy for users to create a large stockpile of opiates very quickly. Likewise, drug dealers often employ this strategy to obtain pills for illegal sale at a high markup.
Painkillers as a Gateway to Heroin
It’s important to note that the illegal drug trade for prescription pills is dwindling. Dealers now recognize that black market prescription drugs are simply too costly for most opioid users to afford. As a result, dealers have begun to concentrate their efforts on hooking their customers onto heroin.
Heroin is a powerful opioid that is widely available throughout California. Since heroin is illegal, there is no quality control system, and many dealers “cut” their supply with other substances, creating a greater risk for unsuspecting opioid users who have turned to heroin in lieu of refilling their prescriptions.
Like those struggling with prescription opioid addiction, new heroin users may initially find relief from their withdrawal symptoms. However, the same users will develop an even greater tolerance for opioids over time. This process encourages users to take increasingly larger doses of heroin, eventually turning to intravenous injection to achieve a more powerful effect and greatly increasing their risk for overdose.
Treatment for Opioid and Heroin Addiction
Treatment for opioid addiction is mentally and physically exhausting, and can even be life-threatening in some situations. Typically, opioid withdrawal entails disorientation, muscle and joint aches, sleep problems, issues with eating, nausea, vomiting and dehydration. Additionally, addiction cravings grow increasingly intense as withdrawal symptoms worsen.
With the right treatment, the detox process can go much more smoothly and provide victims of opioid addiction with a better foundation for recovery. Recovering from opioid addiction is no easy task, and requires a strong personal commitment, a solid support system and the care and guidance of trained substance abuse professionals.