When it comes to an overdose, seeking medical help right away is critical. The problem is that when someone is overdosing, the people around them may be scared to call 911 for fear of being arrested.
Since 1999, there have been more than 841,000 drug overdose deaths. A large majority of those deaths were due to opioids (more than 500,000). There are many different types of opioids, all with the potential for abuse and addiction:
- Natural opioids consist of drugs like morphine or codeine which are used to treat pain.
- Semi-synthetic opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone are often prescribed to treat chronic pain or after surgery.
- Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, methadone, or tramadol.
- Heroin is a highly abused, illegal street drug made from morphine.
Research into the opioid epidemic in the United States indicates that there have been three major waves of use and overdose. Overdoses first began to increase in the early 2000’s, which coincided with the mass marketing of opioid medications such as Oxycontin. By 2010 prescription opioids became harder to obtain, at which point many people turned to heroin, leading to a tragic increase in heroin-related overdose deaths.
The third wave came shortly thereafter in 2013 and was driven by the proliferation of fentanyl and fentanyl-laced drugs. Drug dealers found this synthetic opioid was far cheaper and easier to obtain than heroin. Fentanyl is 80-100 times more potent than heroin, making it far easier for users to inadvertently administer a fatal dose. This is the point at which the opioid problem became a legitimate national epidemic.
The Greed That Drove the Opioid Epidemic
The stigma surrounding drug use and addiction typically points an accusing finger at the user. It’s their fault for taking the drugs in the first place, and if they really wanted to stop, they could. But what happens when prescribing physicians and companies that are supposed to be trustworthy are working against you? What do you do when a doctor recommends OxyContin after hip replacement surgery and promises it will treat the unbearable pain you are currently experiencing?
In 1892, Purdue Pharma was founded by John Purdue Gray. It was then sold to Raymond and Mortimer Sackler in 1952. At that point, they were selling earwax removal treatments and laxatives, but in 1991 they transitioned their focus to providing pain management medications to the public. They developed and sold everything from hydromorphone to codeine to fentanyl and in 1996 they began an aggressive campaign to increase OxyContin sales. Not only did they bribe doctors to prescribe OxyContin, but they marketed the drug as being safe. They claimed, without any supporting research, that it would cure all pain and had a low potential for abuse.
Despite their claims of safety, this branch of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma knew about the abuse that was taking place with their drug. In 2000, OxyContin abuse was being reported across the U.S., and in 2003, the DEA was actually able to link Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing methods to the widespread abuse of OxyContin.
Though countless lawsuits and complaints about Purdue Pharma’s methods were made, it wasn’t until 2007 that the company was forced to answer for its mistakes. They had to pay $634.5 million and three executives plead guilty to federal charges.
In 2019, there were almost 3,000 lawsuits against Purdue Pharma. On September 1, 2021, a settlement was approved that removes any of this branch of the Sackler family ownership or contribution to Purdue Pharma. Alongside that, around $10 billion will be paid to help fight the opioid crisis in America, $4.5 billion of which will be paid by this branch of the Sackler family themselves.
Know the Signs of an Opioid Overdose
Knowing what an overdose looks like can help prevent the rising number of lives being taken due to opioids. Though anyone taking opioids can potentially overdose, the risk increases when:
- Opioids are used to get high rather than to treat pain.
- They are taken at an increased rate or higher dosage than prescribed.
- They are combined with other medications or alcohol.
- There are certain co-occurring conditions like kidney disease.
- Users are over the age of 65.
When an opioid overdose takes place, it is critical that medical care is rendered immediately. If Naloxone is on hand, using it can reverse the effects of the overdose and keep someone alive long enough to receive attention from medical professionals.
Signs of an opioid overdose include:
- The person’s face is extremely pale
- They are clammy to the touch
- Their body goes limp or they lose consciousness
- The person’s fingernails or lips have turned blue or purple
- They begin vomiting
- They are unconscious and cannot be awoken
- Their breathing/heartbeat is dangerously slow or has stopped altogether
The Good Samaritan Law
When it comes to an overdose, seeking medical help right away is critical. The problem is that when someone is overdosing, the people around them may be scared to call 911 for fear of being arrested. To prevent this, there are Good Samaritan laws in place, protecting individuals from legal repercussions.
Though there are various types of Good Samaritan laws, the ones pertaining to victims of overdose and bystanders provide certain protections for calling 911 in the event of a crisis. These laws protect against what is called “ordinary negligence” and not “gross negligence,” meaning they don’t protect against intentional and voluntary disregard for helping others.
Though most states across the country have some form of law protecting people, it’s important to be educated on those laws pertaining to your specific state. The following resources may help.
Prescription Drug Abuse Policy System: This organization provides an interactive map that gives specific information on each state’s laws as well as data about the Good Samaritan laws of that state.
SAMHSA’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies: This document makes these laws easier to understand so that every day people know what their rights are and which laws are protecting them.
Other Overdose Resources
National Institute on Drug Abuse: They provide information on drugs and overdoses and various resources for locating Naloxone.
SAMHSA: The opioid toolkit can help someone know what to do in the event of an overdose.
International Overdose Awareness Day: This is a community-based organization that provides various overdose fact sheets with information that can help save lives.