- The number of opioid overdose deaths now rivals the total number of US casualties in the Vietnam War. A Kentucky native described how he, his mother, and most of the people around him fell into deep opioid addictions, and said he attends a funeral at least “every six months.” Medication-assisted treatment programs are the most successful ways to treat heavy drug addiction, with success rates of 50%.
After President Donald Trump declared a national public health emergency on Thursday in response to the opioid drug crisis that has killed almost as many people in the US as the Vietnam War, a former addict in Kentucky spoke out about the deadly effect opioids have had on him and his community.
“By everyone’s standards I should be dead,” Aaron Pope of Lexington, Kentucky told the podcast The Daily after over a year of being clean.
Others around him though have not been so lucky.
“I attend a funeral once every six months, at least. They’re dying left and right,” he said.
“It was oxycodone galore,” Pope said, describing how the people in his community first got hooked on opioids. “Everybody was either a) doing or selling oxycodone themselves, or b) they knew someone who did. Yeah everyone did this. Even people who didn’t do drugs eventually did this because it was so profitable.”
Pope said that even his own mother soon began selling and using opioids around the time of the Great Recession in the late 2000s. But by the time opioid sales began to be more regulated in places like Florida, people around Pope said he switched to heroin.
“That’s why heroin is as popular as it is right now,” Pope told The Daily. “It’s a direct result of Oxycontin and oxycodone and methodone, the supply of that being cut in half, and the street value of that jumping and almost doubling. So in any addict’s mind, the best idea ever is just to switch to heroin. I would say 90% of the people I know, that’s their story.”
Pope said that, like everyone else in his community, he started out doing prescription drugs and took his first oxycodone pills when he was fourteen.
“Euphoria, is just what I would describe it,” Pope said, recalling his first opioid high. “That was the moment that I knew that these were the greatest things since sliced bread.”
Eight years later, Pope found himself lying on his father’s lap after having suffered a bad heroin overdose. His father was crying. Pope says the experience served as a wake-up call for him to get help before the drug killed him.
“I just want people to know that I would say none of us, you know the junkie on the street corner or the junkie under the bridge – they’re not beyond help,” he says. “There’s no one out there that’s unsaveable. I can speak to that personally.”
Pope says a large part of his own recovery was the fact that employees at his rehab clinic were all either former users or alcoholics themselves. In addition to compassionate care, drug treatment experts have come up with a “gold standard” for care that leans heavily on medication-assisted treatment (MAT).
Medication-assisted treatment uses prescription medications like buprenorphine to reduce cravings, allowing patients to work on the underlying issues leading to their substance use, without the constant pressure of withdrawal.
Studies in 2008 and 2011 conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that treatment using Suboxone, the most commonly prescribed version of buprenorphine, showed a “marked reduction” in drug use for participants. Approximately 50% of participants in the 2011 study reduced their substance use during extended Suboxone treatment. The success rate dropped to 8.6% once it was discontinued.
MAT is expensive, however, and often not favored by judges who tend to almost universally prescribe Vivitrol, a treatment that is not recommended by most medical professionals. In addition, pharmaceutical research has recently focused on creating “abuse-deterrent” pills, or prescription drugs with special casings that make it very difficult for them to be crushed, snorted, or injected.
The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review found that the evidence that such methods deter addiction were “promising but inconclusive,” and as Pope’s personal account demonstrates, drug users often try to find ways around such barriers, leading them to abuse more dangerous opiates like heroin.