A purple, seemingly harmless flower, has cost many people their lives despite its inconspicuous appearance. Originally used for medicine, the poppy plant was mankind’s first painkiller.
The first record of the use of the opium poppy plant comes from the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. At that time, the flower was known as the "joy plant," as the body immediately felt a kind of euphoria upon consumption. Later, however, in addition to its medicinal benefits, it became the main source of narcotics such as morphine, heroin and codeine. It grows mainly in the Mediterranean region, but with the spread of narcotics around the world, the opium poppy plant has matriculated into many different countries, driving a countless number of people into deep addiction.
Especially in the United States, opioid abuse became a national problem. The Department of Health Services (DHS) and Wisconsin politicians are now teaming up to tackle the crisis.
A nation in crisis
The death rate due to drug abuse has steadily gone up in North America since the 1990s. In 2017, two thirds of deaths attributed to substance abuse were due to opioid abuse. In absolute numbers, nearly 47,600 people died in 2017 from opioid abuse. Since 1999, 500,000 deaths can be attributed to the same cause.
There were multiple triggers for a health crisis of this magnitude.
In 1999, the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. promoted opioids as an all-purpose weapon against varying levels of pain, prompting doctors to prescribe them more often. This paid off: the number of prescriptions for such painkillers has quadrupled since 1999. According to the U.S. Attorneys Association, prescription drugs are the second most addictive substance after alcohol.
One driving factor that pushed up opioid use was the rise in pharmaceutical industry marketing at the turn of the millennium, according to the National Library of Medicine. In particular, "Purdue Pharma," the manufacturer of OxyContin, intensely pushed the marketing of painkillers, investing over $200 million in 2001 alone. OxyContin is a treatment for pain severe enough to require long-term daily opioid treatment, according to the CDC. The risk of addiction is extremely high.
The second wave of opioid deaths came in 2010 with the expansion of the heroin market in the U.S. After it became clear that the requirements for prescribing painkillers would have to become stricter, people who were already addicted sought a new alternative, and found it in heroin.
Heroin is cheaper to obtain than prescribed opioids because it can only be purchased on the black market. In addition, the effect is stronger because the prescribed opioid is often stretched, whereas illegally sold heroin can be much purer and therefore stronger.
A third wave hit the U.S. when the use of “synthetic opioid” became more common.
Synthetic opioids are substances synthesized in a laboratory. These agents were developed to achieve a joke-relieving effect in humans like natural opioids such as morphine or codeine. Some types of man-made opioids are approved for use in medicine, but illegal versions began to be trafficked from the 1970s. The illicit substances are believed to be manufactured abroad and brought into the U.S. with the largest imports from Mexico and China.
Opioids in Wisconsin
The opioid crisis hit Wisconsin as well. Between 2014 and 2020, alcohol was the state’s most commonly used drug, followed by marijuana. However, opioids still caused the majority of drug abuse deaths and hospitalizations, according to the DHS.
From 2018 to 2020 alone, the death rate from opioids in Wisconsin increased by 46%. Because of cocaine containing synthetic opioids, the death rate in Wisconsin between 2019 and 2021 has increased by 97% — from 651 to 1280 deaths.
The scope of opioid abuse also varies among Wisconsin counties.
The areas most affected by the epidemic are primarily in the southeastern part of the state. In 2020, the counties of Kenosha, Walworth, Rock, Racine, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Dodge, Sauk, Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Adams, Juneau, Jackson, La Crosse, Winnebago, Manitowoc and Vilas all experienced abuse rates above 18 per 100,000 residents, which is considered high, according to the DHS.
Milwaukee fares the worst in these statistics, as the county had an opioid death rate of 44.6 per 100,000 residents. Dane County is also listed among the counties most affected by the opioid epidemic. The death rate per 100,000 residents was 23.1 in 2020, and most of the deaths happened to be people between the ages of 18 and 44.
A variation can also be seen between different ethnicities. Broken down by race, the death rate among African Americans in Wisconsin was the highest at 73.8 per 100,000 population, according to the DHS.
"We know that many Wisconsinites struggle with opioid use, and that’s a problem that tragically has only gotten worse over the last few years,” Gov. Tony Evers said.
In 2022, the DHS launched the “Dose of Reality” awareness campaign. The campaign aims to provide an easy way for individuals affected by opioids to learn about opioid use. Information about opioid risks, storage and disposal of the medication and help following treatment and recovery services can be found through the campaign. The website also provides strategies on how to help people at risk of, or affected by, opioid use disorder.
Additionally, the University of Wisconsin-Madison plans to address the opioid crisis.
Beginning this fall, UW-Madison partnered with Wisconsin Voices of Recovery. The partnership came about as part of the Nalox-ZONE program, which aims to give students free access to Nalox-ZONE boxes. Nalox is a special high-affinity opioid antagonist used to treat overdose. The goal of the Nalox-ZONE program is to increase access to this medication by placing Nalox-ZONE boxes throughout Wisconsin. This makes Nalox easily available at no cost to people in emergency situations.
“We have one goal — to save lives,” said DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake. “Everyone living in Wisconsin can make a difference in turning back the epidemic of opioid misuse and overdose. It starts with real talks. Having open and honest talks with your family and friends can be tough, but it may be the most important thing you do.”
“While opioids are powerful drugs, there is something more powerful than opioids: All of us. Together, we can reduce the dangers of opioids and their impacts on our communities,” said DHS Director of Opioid Initiatives Paul Krupski. “Real talks create supportive communities where prevention, hope, and recovery can be a reality.”