Unless you’ve been living under a rock, in a cave, or had your head stuck in the sand for the past few years, you’re familiar with the opioid epidemic.

The opioid epidemic refers to an unusually high number of people in the United States who are currently addicted to, dependent on, or otherwise abusing prescription painkillers – almost all of which are opioids (e.g. Percocet [oxycodone], Kadian [morphine], and Opana [oxymorphone]) – heroin, fentanyl, or a mixture of all three. Opioids are so dangerous because they can quite literally make people be unable to breathe in high doses, pass out, and be especially fatal when combined with other drugs.

According to the United States National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly 120 people die on a daily basis here in the United States due to opioid overdoses.

How did the opioid epidemic come about?

In the early 1800s, morphine was first isolated from the poppy plant. Its use spread like wildfire throughout the United States over the next century. In the late 1890s, heroin was synthesized by Bayer and marketed as a safe, non-addictive alternative to morphine. As it turns out, both drugs are equally as addictive and dangerous.

Roughly 25 years ago, various pharmaceutical companies developed slow-release versions of opioids that were said to be impossible to abuse, safe, and non-addictive. The wave of “new” opioids marketed by these businesses was readily prescribed until roughly 2010. They essentially acted as heroin did to morphine a century prior – it only compounded existing problems.

What are some new, innovative means of fighting the opioid epidemic?

People with substance abuse disorders operate better on drugs than without them. When they can’t source their drug(s) of choice, some resort to pawning their own belongings, stealing things from loved ones, robbing strangers, and otherwise engaging in crime.

Providing drug users whose attempts at quitting have proved unsuccessful countless times could be provided with low-cost prescription heroin at pharmacies – no money problems, no sourcing issues, and no worrying about potentially-deadly adulterants. The problem of course is where do we draw the line between enabling and stopping? It can be tough to say what’s the best move. Given the stunted progress though, I do believe we need to start thinking outside of the box.

The criminalization of drug use certainly doesn’t help cut down on drug use, either; Like many countries, the United States needs to rethink and – more importantly – actually reform the system through which it deals with substance abuse.