Opium first appeared in the historical record in 3400 BC Mesopotamia. Its mind altering effects were so celebrated that it would ultimately cause a war. The ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to discover their analgesic strength, which led to the creation of morphine and, eventually, codeine. Heroin was only synthesized in the late 1800s when the famous pharmaceutical company, Bayer, began to sell it as medicine. Bayer’s current catchphrase is “Science for Better Life,” a distinctly ironic slogan considering the unforeseen chaos heroin has caused among addicts.
In reality, research takes time to collect and analyze data for long-term effects. In the quest for fast pain relief (and profits), new treatments sometimes jump the gun.
Today, the DEA lists all opiates as having a high risk of physical and psychological tolerance. Their addictive properties don’t undermine their usefulness, but they do underline a need for caution. The U.S. government called the opioid abuse crisis a “public health emergency” in 2017, but awareness of its dangers is not synonymous with having a realistic best practice for overcoming the problem.
Patient Rights and Mortality
Profit-seeking is one of the most destructive aspects of the pharmaceutical industry. Patients have a right to pain relief, but if pharmaceutical companies studied tolerance and addiction patterns during their first trials, the current crisis might have been diverted early.
Opioids receive more bad press than most other drugs, not merely for their addictive qualities, but also the fatal effects of their abuse–another issue that should have been addressed before the drugs went to market. Had solutions, such as addiction specialist support and abuse screening tools, been rolled out to doctors during post-market studies, fewer lives would have been lost.
One of the most powerful solutions to the opioid crisis is education. Chronic pain patients deserve pain-free and safe lives. The pharma sector can and should put those rights ahead of profits.