American carnage: The new landscape of opioid addiction

Once widely available, the supply “found” people susceptible to addiction. A suburban teenager with a lot of curiosity might discover that Grandpa, who just had his knee replaced, kept a bottle of hydrocodone on the bedside table. A construction boss might hand out Vicodin at the beginning of the workday, whether as a remedy for back pain or a perquisite of the job. Pills are dosable—and they don’t require you to use needles and run the risk of getting AIDS. So a person who would never have become a heroin addict in the old days of the opioid taboo could now become the equivalent of one, in a more antiseptic way.

But a shocking number of people wound up with a classic heroin problem anyway. Relaxed taboos and ready supply created a much wider appetite for opioids. Once that happened, heroin turned out to be very competitively priced. Not only that, it is harder to crack down on heavily armed drug gangs that sell it than on the unscrupulous doctors who turned their practices into “pill mills.” Addicts in Maine complain about the rising price of black-market pharmaceutical pills: They have risen far above the dollar-a-milligram that used to constitute a kind of “par” in the drug market. An Oxy 30 will now run you forty-five bucks. But you can shoot heroin when the pills run out, and it will save you money. A lot of money. Heroin started pouring into the eastern United States a decade ago, even before the price of pills began to climb. Since then, its price has fallen further, its purity has risen—and, lately, the number of heroin deaths is rising sharply everywhere. That is because, when we say heroin, we increasingly mean fentanyl…

The implicit accusation is that only now that whites are involved have racist authorities been roused to act. This is false in two ways. First, authorities have not been roused to act. Second, when they do, they will have epidemiological, and not just tribal, grounds for doing so. A plague afflicting an entire country, across ethnic groups, is by definition more devastating than a plague afflicting only part of it. A heroin scourge in America’s housing projects coincided with a wave of heroin-addicted soldiers brought back from Vietnam, with a cost peaking between 1973 and 1975 at 1.5 overdose deaths per 100,000. The Nixon White House panicked. Curtis Mayfield wrote his soul ballad “Freddie’s Dead.” The crack epidemic of the mid- to late 1980s was worse, with a death rate reaching almost two per 100,000. George H. W. Bush declared war on drugs. The present opioid epidemic is killing 10.3 people per 100,000, and that is without the fentanyl-impacted statistics from 2016. In some states it is far worse: over thirty per 100,000 in New Hampshire and over forty in West Virginia.