The History of America’s Opioid Crisis

The History of America’s Opioid Crisis

The History of America’s Opioid Crisis

The opioid crisis in America still shows no sign of stopping. Stories of alarming overdose rates continue making their way into the news. Research shows the numbers rising every year. What started as a contained problem quickly exploded into a widespread wildfire that the FDA and DEA must contain.

Over the past few years the Food and Drug Administration along with the Drug Enforcement Agency have made moves to stem the flow of opioid medications. They work to limit the numbers of people who receive prescriptions and the amount they receive.

How did the problem start in the first place, though? What caused such a massive drug abuse and overdose problem in the United States? What plans do the FDA and DEA have to continue pushing back against America’s opioid epidemic?

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a broad category of drugs made from opium extracted from the poppy plant. Doctors use prescription opioids to treat medium to high levels of pain for cases ranging from surgical procedures to chronic pain. When used responsibly,  prescription opioids, or painkillers, provide much-needed pain relief for users.

A large number of prescription drugs classify as opioids, including:


  • Morphine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin and Norco)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Suboxone
  • Methadone


In addition to pain relief, opioids provide a sense of calmness and mild feelings of euphoria. When someone uses a greater amount than prescribed, they amplify these feelings. This causes some to develop an addiction to these medications, an addiction that may quickly get out of hand.

Timeline of the Opioid Crisis

Initially, pharmaceutical companies in the 1990s insisted prescription opioids held little to no potential for addiction. As a result, doctors began prescribing pain killers more freely. This led to more prescription opioids in the hands of people who needed them. It also led to some taking more than prescribed and discovering the enjoyable effects.

Overdose rates first spiked between 2001 and 2002. Prior to these years, rates remained relatively consistent. After this initial jump, overdose deaths continued to skyrocket throughout the 2000s. What doctors initially thought was a helpful medication soon showed its true colors.

Rising numbers of deaths due to opioid overdoses were undeniable by the late 2000s. One of the leading contributors to these deaths was OxyContin. Purdue, the makers of the drug, were fined $600 million in 2007 for misrepresenting their medication. They neglected to mention the high risk of addiction associated with OxyContin to doctors and regulators.

The Food and Drug Administration started raising cases with other companies after OxyContin paid their fines. In November of 2009, the FDA worked with the healthcare community to explain and enforce safe prescribing practices for prescription opioids. As the availability of prescription opioids decreased, rates of heroin use rose in response.

The wider use of heroin and counterfeit fentanyl led to skyrocketing overdose rates post-2010. The FDA responded in 2016 with an action plan intended to reduce access to opioids outside of necessary pain relief cases.

Department of Health and Human Services Responds

The Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) responded to the opioid crisis by declaring a state of public health emergency. In April 2017, Secretary Thomas Price gave a talk that outlined HSS’s plan to fight back against the epidemic. He outlined their top five priorities in the push against opiates:

  1. Provide better access to addiction treatment and recovery programs.
  2. Encouraging the use of drugs that reverse overdose effects.
  3. Monitoring public health to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of the opioid crisis.
  4. Researching more effective pain and addiction treatments.
  5. Creating better approaches to pain management.

The recent HSS involvement will hopefully reflect in studies regarding 2018 drug use, abuse, and overdose rates. As they continue researching and incorporating better practices in regards to pain management, they hope to see lower rates overall.

Current work by the FDA, DEA, and HSS shows the intention of reducing the impact of prescriptions opioids on America. They still need more time to pass before they can gather a true idea of the impact of their efforts, though. Hopefully through additional studies and regulations they will create a dent in alarming effects of the opioid crisis in the United States.