How The War On Opioids Is Hurting Those Who Live With Chronic Pain

colorful illustration of a bottle of pills
PHOTO: AMANDA CASSINGHAM-BARDWELL / GETTY IMAGES

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In a move apparently inspired by the murderous regime currently terrorizing the Philippines, President Donald Trump has suggested the death penalty as a possible punishment for convicted drug dealers. 

"If we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time," Trump declared during a mid-March speech in New Hampshire. "And that toughness includes the death penalty."

This suggestion is alarming for many reasons, in part because there are racial biases at work when the image of a "drug dealer" is evoked in our country, and because those same racial biases are already fueling an alarming number of police brutality cases across the nation.

Less obviously, though, those who depend on opioid painkillers to function have already been struggling due to hysteria over the "opioid epidemic" — and getting something as serious as the death penalty involved is only going to make things worse for them.

Yes, there was a problem with people being overprescribed opioids before we fully understood their dangers. There is no doubt that people can become physically addicted to these drugs when they take them for too long and experience serious withdrawal systems when they try to get off them. But this doesn't mean that every person who takes an opioid will develop the kind of powerful psychological dependency that ruins lives, or that we need to make these drugs virtually impossible to obtain.

Imagine being in pain every day of your life. Sometimes it's not so bad. Other days, your "bad pain days," leave you unable to get out of bed. The stress of the pain drains your energy as you attempt to go about your business — trying to work because you're unlikely to be able to get on disability, and trying to keep up with friends and family despite always hurting and feeling exhausted.

According to the National Health Institute, 11% of all adults in the U.S. experience a level of this kind of pain — chronic pain. For these millions of people, a daily medication regimen is essential for function in society. It's the only way they can maintain anything close to a "normal" life — a life we all deserve. 

Some people aren't able to manage their pain with meditation or yoga or cannabis. They need something stronger. 

Realistically, their only options are generally either opioids or benzodiazepines — the latter of which are just as addictive as opioids and can be just as dangerous in terms of overdose and damage from long-term use.

We need to be realistic about drugs, but we also need to be suspicious of those who demonize them for political purposes.

I know a woman who was offered Valium (a benzo) for chronic pain related to a chronic illness, but she was unable to take it because she was still breastfeeding her child. She asked for Vicodin — an opioid that's actually safe to take while breastfeeding — but her doctor refused her. Why is one okay to prescribe and the other not? 

Well, we don't have a "benzodiazepine epidemic," do we? 

Opioids can be dangerous and should be controlled, but leaving chronic pain patients to suffer — unable to fully live out their lives — is unacceptable. Doctors being too afraid to prescribe necessary drugs to anyone because of buzz over an "opioid epidemic" is causing unnecessary harm.

We need to be realistic about drugs, but we also need to be suspicious of those who demonize them for political purposes.

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LINDSEY WEEDSTON

Lindsey Weedston is NOT a social justice warrior. Clearly, her class is bard, with extra points in stealth and a little taken out of charisma. She's also a HUGE nerd, and can often be found gushing about video games. She even participated in a LARPing exercise once. Not nerdy enough to know what that is? Google it. You'll see.

Lindsey is a life-long feminist and writer and likes to color in adult coloring books with gel pens. She writes on LGBT+ and mental health issues, and will ruin your favorite childhood TV show with her feminism. Nothing you love is safe. Have a nice day!

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