An estimated 3.6 percent of teens aged 12-17 reported abusing some form of opioid in 2015-2016. Twice as many teens and young adults aged 18-25 reported opioid abuse in the same period. The American opioid epidemic was declared a national emergency in 2017, and while the numbers have been slowly receding over the past few years, opioid abuse continues to rise and the need for opioid treatment programs has never been greater.
Although illicit opioids like heroin are outlawed, most of these numbers report the use of stolen or misused pain medication. This problem dates to the 1990s when lax advertising rules and unscrupulous methods led to a boom in painkiller sales and an oversaturation of addictive medication in US households. Opioids are a class of drugs, naturally or synthetically derived from opium, the latex of poppy. They include codeine, hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), morphine, fentanyl, and heroin.
Synthetic opioids are structurally similar to the real thing and target the same receptors in the nervous system. While these drugs are effective painkillers, they’re also powerful respiratory depressants. Too much can quickly slow and stop a person’s breathing. The effects of opioids on the brain are also associated with a higher risk of addiction than most medications. And although heroin has been outlawed for decades, the opioid epidemic has helped bring back demand.