Written by Zachary Jordan '21
In the 13th century, merchant Marco Polo became famous for popularizing the Silk Road, consequently helping to vitalize a rich trading route that would connect and forever change Eastern and Western cultures. Less well known is his 7 year stop-over in Afghanistan. He had contracted debilitating tuberculosis, and hoped that the clean, fresh air of the Middle East would help him to heal. Marco got more than he bargained for when he began using opiates to help manage the pain, and his short recovery stay turned into a full blown battle with addiction.
Over the next several centuries, opium would become a problem in the East and around the world. As early as 1803, morphine (the active ingredient in opium) became reputed as a panacea - it was prescribed by physicians, and mothers would give it to their teething children. When medicinal understanding progressed into the 20th century, awareness of the terrible addictive properties of the drug became popularized. Despite this fact, addiction statistics have skyrocketed - it is estimated that in the United States alone around 800,000 people can be classified as heroin addicts. Today around America, unprecedented levels of drug abuse have made national headlines and ruined – and ended - thousands of lives. For example, In Pineville, West Virginia, store clerks were held up at gunpoint by criminals in search of prescription pills. And this is far from an isolated example. Why, in a society more educated than ever, have addiction levels skyrocketed?
Many think it can be attributed to humanity’s own ingenuity. Technology has made prescription opiates easy to access and cheap enough to manufacture on a mind-boggling scale. In fact, most opiate addictions start the way Polo’s did: as a medicinal solution to debilitating pain. People today are surviving to older ages than ever before, and with age comes continuous and painful health issues. Doctors prescribe a slew of opiate derivatives to help patients; Vicodin, Dilaudid, Oxycontin, and Percocet are just a few of the more well known commercial names. Patients who have no intentions of being drug users can find themselves deep in the thrall of addiction before they know it, especially if they have chronic or severe conditions.
But these prescription drugs are expensive, and most can’t afford to continue to feed the angry monster that grows with each pill. With the expense of prescriptions constantly increasing, many users quickly turn to a cheaper, more accessible drug: heroin. Ironically, what is now known as perhaps the most debilitating wide-scale drug known to mankind was originally created to help ease people off of morphine addictions. That is, until it was realized that it was far more addictive. Developed in 1897 by German chemist Felix Hoffmann (previously most well known for his synthesis of aspirin), heroin was originally marketed as a non-addictive alternative to morphine for use during childbirth and to treat chronically painful conditions and certain mental disorders. Unfortunately, heroin is now cheap, easily accessible, and ruining lives on an epic scale across America. It is estimated that there are roughly two million users in the United States alone (while only roughly 40% are technically classified as “addicts,” many users eventually find themselves addicted).
Coupled with the rapidly increasing opiate usage is the number of overdoses, many leading to death. Fortunately, the life-saving drug naloxone (known commercially as Narcan) can be sprayed into the nose of an overdoser, blocking the opiate receptors in their brain. It can effectively restart a person’s heart and lungs, and is a truly lifesaving drug carried by many police officers and all EMTs. Unfortunately, knowledge that life saving treatment is available has actually encouraged binge use of opiates, as users know that they will survive the experience as long as they call 911 before they pass out.
The major societal downside of naloxone is its price. In some hard-hit Midwestern towns, the annual cost of the requisite amount of Narcan to treat every overdose exceeds the entire budget of emergency departments. This bill is footed by taxpayers, many of whom are growing tired with the issue of chronic users exploiting the responsibility of EMTs to save lives. In some places, laws are now instituted that actually refuse administration of Narcan to repeat offenders to discourage this behavior in users. While harsh, these towns hope that severe consequences will make users think twice before overdosing.
Across the country, governmental organizations and health care providers are scrambling to find a solution to opioid abuse. In 2016, the United States recorded the largest ever jump in overdose deaths, a sobering statistic. The future of this epidemic is unclear… and right now, the best thing we can do is hope for and support those fighting for their lives.
Want to help? Donate today at http://www.theherofoundation.org *
*The Hero Foundation is not affiliated with the author, Ursa Sapiens, or the Triple Helix.
 “Heroin History and Statistics.” DrugAbuse.com, 25 Oct. 2017, drugabuse.com/library/heroin-history-and-statistics/.
 Hill, Reviewed by Justin. “Marco Polo: from Venice to Xanadu, by Laurence Bergreen.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 21 Feb. 2008, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/marco-polo-from-venice-to-xanadu-by-laurence-bergreen-785317.html.
 Jenkins, P. Nash. “Heroin Addictions Fraught History.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 24 Feb. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/02/heroin-addictions-fraught-history/284001/.
 Katz, Josh. “Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 June 2017, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/05/upshot/opioid-epidemic-drug-overdose-deaths-are-rising-faster-than-ever.html.
 “Statistics on Opium Use and Abuse Around the World.” Opium.org, 6 Apr. 2016, www.opium.org/statistics-opium-use-abuse-around-world.html.