From the 2020 Australian Fires and the 2010 BP Oil Spill, to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 or the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, it has been made clear throughout time that governments listen, and routinely respond to, environmental disasters.
The opioid crisis isn’t currently given the necessary attention. However, I feel that if we focused on the issue as if it were an environmental issue, and treated it with the caution it deserves, we would benefit from the response given to similar disasters.
For years, the opioid disaster has been compared to environmental disasters. Like an oil spill, it is the result of the saturation of a single family of substances and it crosses international boundaries with abandon, whether through the import of synthetic opioids from China or via promotion from multinational pharmaceutical companies.
Additionally, its influence, like that of a chemical or nuclear leak, will be felt for years to come, in the thousands of children who must deal with the aftereffects of neonatal abstinence syndrome, or the growing number of grandparents caring for grandchildren following the overdose deaths of their own children.
Answering these comparisons and treating the opioid crisis as an ecological catastrophe has the potential to set important precedents for cleanup and prevention, which can be particularly useful in areas where successful solutions have lagged.
However, when the ecological issue results from a pollutant like mercury, cleanup and prevention is relatively easy to imagine. The question we must ask is, how does a cleanup look when the offending material is a medically necessary resource for certain people?
Since opioids are both licit narcotics and illicit street drugs, a “cleanup” is a difficult prospect, as simply cutting off the supply or limiting access will put people suffering from chronic pain in risk. Nonetheless, containment is always a possibility.
Blocking access to legitimately prescribed prescription drugs will not save lives; however, eliminating opioid “pill mills” and access to illicit narcotics will.
To respond to the opioid crisis in a reasonable and efficient manner, law enforcement and medical regulatory bodies must understand and address this disparity, before making an already critical issue even worse.
The most significant benefit of presenting the opioid crisis as a multigenerational ecological catastrophe is that it provides a set of useful guidelines, particularly in areas such as corporate accountability, something we saw in the litigation against BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Steps towards corporate responsibility for the opioid disaster are now underway in several US states, however, we should be actively endorsing a wider, positive, definition of accountability, one that keeps drug companies positively accountable for creating innovative, non-opioid therapies for acute and chronic pain. Innovative, non-opioid therapies such as BioWave.
In nearly all ecological disasters, government-backed relief programs are ramped up at every level, and for the opioid disaster, it should be the same.
From stronger initiatives to educate people about the hazards of opioids and the availability of existing resources, such as medication-assisted treatment, to the equipping of communities with the tools they need to address the epidemic as they see it and live through it, the UK needs to notice the potential flood of patients and invest an effective pain service.
The opioid disaster is happening on so many levels at the same time and impacting so many lives in ways that other disasters do not. It can be seen through a variety of lenses.
The opioid crisis may continue to contaminate our atmosphere into the foreseeable future, however, unlike oil spills, we cannot let it take three decades for us to address it.