CRF Blog

Backgrounder on the U.S. Opioid Epidemic

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on The U.S. Opioid Epidemic.

The United States is grappling with one of its worst-ever drug crises. More than nine hundred people a week die from opioid-related overdoses, and some experts say the death toll may not peak for years. Meanwhile, millions more Americans suffer from opioid addiction.

The crisis has reached such a scale that, beyond the risks it poses to public health, it is becoming a drag on the economy and a threat to national security. Analysts say the problem started with the overprescription of legal pain medications, such as oxycodone, but note that it has intensified in recent years with an influx of cheap heroin and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, supplied by foreign-based drug cartels.

In recent years, the U.S. government has ramped up efforts to cut both the foreign and domestic supply of opioids, limiting the number of prescriptions in the United States while providing counternarcotics assistance to countries including Mexico and China. Meanwhile, federal and state officials have attempted to reduce demand by focusing less on punishing drug users and more on treating them. Other countries where opioid use has also spiked, such as Canada and Australia, are experimenting with different policies. [more]