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Ever since Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, the United States has been cracking down on all sorts of illegal drug use. From cocaine, marijuana, and heroin to methamphetamines and hallucinogens, the government has taken a wide stance to stopping illegal drug imports, distribution, and usage for over 35 years. However, in doing so, they missed a huge problem that was developing with legal drugs that are more and more regularly being prescribed and distributed to patients as a treatment or remedy but are having lasting, damaging effects.

There is an opioid epidemic in the United States. Although the U.S. population only comprises about 5% of the global population, we consume 80% of the opioids produced and prescribed around the world and we consume 99% of the hydrocodone — a specific type of opioid — that is produced. Each day in the country, over 650,000 opioid prescriptions are written and 78 people die from an opioid related drug overdose.

On Wednesday, April 19, Human Services Secretary Tom Price described the opioid situation as a crisis, and it’s not difficult to see why.

In the 1960s, 80% of the people who were hospitalized for opioid addiction had started by using heroin. By the time we get to 2013, about 80% of heroin users reported having gotten their start using prescription opioids. In 2015 alone, over 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses and nearly half of the deaths involved an opioid obtained legally through a prescription. This poses a huge problem for the safety of all Americans.

The CDC puts part of the blame the doctors who are continuing to write prescriptions for patients who are at the highest risk for opioid addiction. Thorough background checks into patient history is lacking, allowing many abusers to slip through the cracks. However, overprescribing is also a huge problem. According to a survey from the National Safety Council, 99% of doctors prescribe more than the recommended course of three days with 25% of them filling opioid prescriptions that will last a month.  A study performed by the University of Pennsylvania studied the amount of opioids distributed following tooth extractions, a very common, low-risk surgery. Their research showed that patients on average only used 46% of the pain medications that they were prescribed. If you scale this to the level of the general population, the study would suggest that there are over 100 million opioid pills that remain unused following common tooth extraction surgeries alone. These unused pills are often not disposed of following their usage and can end up in the wrong hands.

Do your part to cut down on the availability of opioids by following the FDA’s guidelines for safely disposing of these medications.