OPINION: It’s time we stop scapegoating Vicodin over America’s heroin problem

Heroin tainted with fentanyl is the culprit, not prescription opioids


Over-prescribing opioids gave rise to this problem, but now they may be needed to solve it. Graphic by Kayla Brown

Derek Catron

The conversation about the opioid crisis is all wrong.

At the most recent Democratic primary debate, we learned that most if not all of the candidates want to reduce the amount of opioid prescriptions and punish Big Pharma. I appreciate the sentiment behind that stance, but that doesn’t help the people addicted to opioids.

My solution is simple – let doctors establish contracts with addicted patients to provide them with opioid prescriptions, transition them into an addiction treatment drug such as Suboxone and get them off once and for all.

Making prescription opioids largely unavailable leaves people with opioid addiction in a terrible dilemma, either enter a nightmarish withdrawal or buy heroin – likely tainted with fentanyl.

Not to mention the reduced accessibility to opioid prescriptions punishes chronic pain patients. CBD (cannabidiol) is not a pain killer and it’s tiring to hear it suggested as a viable replacement.

I like Senator Warren’s proposed CARE Act, but even her $100 billion plan doesn’t get to the root of the problem. It’s also outrageously expensive.

An ideal plan would provide addicted patients with immediate access to help through their primary care doctors. They would be allowed up to one year of prescription opioids at a dose that is right for their needs before being transitioned onto, and eventually off of, Suboxone.

Only patients who meet specific criteria proving their dependency should be allowed into such a program and monthly check-ups should be required. Any indication that the prescription is being misused or sold should result in a termination of the patient’s contract.

Prescription opioids are relatively cheap until they reach the black market, where prices are only going up. People with opioid addictions who can no longer afford the habit are turning to heroin.

If they were able to access what they need cheaply and under medical supervision, there would be virtually no market for heroin. Opioid users would be free to spend their time productively instead of scrounging for extra cash – often by illegal means that negatively affect others.

As addicted patients’ lives slowly improve, it will be easier for them to get a grip on their condition.

Opioid prescriptions may have ignited the crisis at hand, but they are now needed to solve it. Forcing vulnerable people to turn to heroin (fentanyl) is unconscionable.

According to the Reason Foundation, 75 percent of opioid overdose deaths in 2017 were caused by heroin or fentanyl, not prescriptions.

It’s time we stop scapegoating Vicodin over America’s heroin problem.

Overdose deaths are still climbing despite efforts to keep opioids off the streets. Cutting supply does not eliminate demand for recession-proof products like drugs.

I commend the local governments of Cleveland and Akron for punishing the pharmaceutical companies that contributed to the crisis in their communities, but this is a small victory.

In 2017, 82 percent of Ohio opioid overdoses involved fentanyl. Politicians are fighting this problem from the wrong angle. We need to focus on keeping people off heroin by any means necessary – even if it temporarily means more prescription opioids.

Over-prescribing opioids was a problem that gave rise to the current epidemic, but under-prescribing them seems to be the new problem. Attacking the supply before helping those affected is just another war on drugs.

If we’re going to help people with opioid addictions, we can’t isolate them. We can’t make heroin their only option until they have the means and will to get clean. We can give them the means and help them find the will.

Rehab should not be the only option for addiction treatment. Slightly increasing access to it is a weak policy. There needs to be a frontline treatment that is cheaper and abundantly available.

I’d like to see presidential candidates and others discuss harm reduction policy more often and in greater detail. Until then, I don’t expect this crisis to improve anytime soon.