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The global drug crisis, powered with new intensity by synthetic opioids, is ravaging our world, and the toll in deaths and shattered lives continues to rise. Efforts to stop it are floundering—and often making things worse. As governments fail in their efforts to halt the unfolding tragedy, what does our Creator offer that can make a difference?
Our world today is obsessed with what amounts to a slow-motion suicide through chemistry. The United Nations has called it the Global Opioid Epidemic. Contrasting it with the COVID-19 crisis, the Economist called it “the other epidemic”—the one relentlessly seething and churning under the surface, while coronavirus dominates the news (March 30, 2021). In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has only fueled its growth.
We are increasingly a world addicted. Seeking a way to push back pain, experience something new, or simply escape reality, desperate millions are consuming record amounts of illegal drugs.
The specter of addiction and drug-fueled self-destruction knows no political borders. The strict punishments meted out by its national religion have not prevented Iran from becoming a ravenous consumer of opium. Highlighting Iran’s unique form of heroin and its culture of homemade crystal meth, the Economist once called drug addiction among Iranian youth the region’s “other religion” (August 17, 2013). Russia is experiencing an epidemic of diseases connected to illegal intravenous drug use, with such diseases growing at rates among the fastest of any other region on earth. And the synthetic opioid tramadol in Nigeria and western Africa is credited with empowering the terrorist organization Boko Haram.
The story for Western nations is the same song with only slightly altered lyrics. As of December 2020, England had seen cocaine-related deaths increase consecutively for nine years in a row. In Canada, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic saw opioid-overdose deaths rise 96 percent, almost doubling. And then there is the United States.
The U.S. seems to lead the world in this crisis, but in all the wrong ways. The twenty-first century has now seen more than one million deaths in the U.S. due to drug overdoses.
The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics reports that from 2020 to 2021 deaths due to overdoses on prescription drugs dropped between 1 and 2 percent—a small change that should be good news. But those were a small fraction of overdose deaths. Cocaine-related deaths grew 23 percent to more than 24,000, methamphetamine deaths grew 34 percent to almost 33,000, and deaths due to synthetic opioids (e.g. fentanyl), remained more than double the meth overdoses—growing 23 percent to roughly 71,000.
The non-profit data-collection project Our World in Data estimates that, directly or indirectly, over 750,000 deaths occur worldwide due to illicit drug usage, of which over 160,000 are due to overdose. Against the backdrop of such estimates, it should seize attention that in the U.S., the year 2021 alone saw over 107,000 drug-overdose deaths. While estimates suggest that around 1 out of every 100 people in the world have a drug problem, in the U.S., that ratio is one out of every 30.
In one of the most financially well-off nations in the world with one of the highest standards of living, a vast number of people are dying to get high.
Ironically, the U.S. has been one of the most prominent and public of nations to pursue the “war on drugs” that it declared in the 1970s. Yet here we are—50 years and, by some estimates, around $1 trillion later—and a look at the growing body count would cause many to conclude that the drugs are winning that war.
But counting dead bodies, as horrific as the numbers are, is an insufficient means of understanding the toll of the world’s addiction problem. Some “experiment” with what they consider “recreational” use of a drug, until the experiment becomes a habit, no longer recreation. Others begin with prescribed medication, perhaps taken for too long or used in ways for which it was not originally intended.
Regardless of how it begins, before one is aware, a vicious cycle of dependency can set in. The human body and brain—doing what they are designed to do—seek and maintain a regular environment, and the presence of the drug in the body becomes the “norm.” The highs it once brought become harder to achieve as the body becomes accustomed. Eventually, the drug gives little or no pleasure but must be taken to avoid the pain of withdrawal. The body may suffer in the ways we’ve seen in photos of addicts—pockmarked skin, sunken eyes, missing teeth—adding decades to their apparent age. But whatever its effect on the body, perhaps its most debilitating effect is on the mind.
The human mind results from the union of the human spirit, imparted to each of us by God, and the human brain, the most astonishing and complex physical object in the known universe. Opioids short-circuit the brain’s neuronal pathways until the only reward it seeks to achieve is that provided by the drug. Nothing else but the drug will do—even as, increasingly, no amount of the drug is enough. Before long, with a brain rewired to set aside all concerns but the next fix, the user finds himself willing to take actions he might have once believed unimaginable: Lying. Stealing. Prostitution. Murder. Gone are the goals, dreams, careers, and relationships that once mattered to the addict. In a very real way, chemical addiction is a picture of the very enslavement Satan the devil—the “great dragon” and “serpent of old” (Revelation 12:9)—would see every human being cast into. Free will seems to disappear, as only one choice appears imaginable: painful and debasing self-destruction, one hit at a time. Perhaps it is not without cause that the elusive quest to recapture their first high is called by some addicts “chasing the dragon.”
As civilization’s love affair with addictive and self-destructive chemicals accelerates, the synthetic opioid fentanyl has come to play a special part in the statistics of despair we see in our headlines. The Washington Post reported that in Pennsylvania, for instance, government officials seized more than 1.8 million doses of fentanyl in only the first three months of the year—more than they had seized over the entirety of the previous year (May 11, 2022).
What makes fentanyl particularly dangerous is the sheer power of the drug. A synthetic opioid like fentanyl differs from natural opioids—such as morphine and codeine—in that it is designed in a lab for the purpose of achieving the same pain-relieving results. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Consequently, many illegal drug manufacturers will add small amounts of fentanyl to other drugs—such as cocaine, heroin, or meth—to intensify the effects. The addition also makes the drugs far more addictive—and more deadly. Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, even in small amounts, are shockingly potent and dramatically increase the odds of a fatal overdose.
But fentanyl was invented not to kill, but to help. Belgian physician Dr. Paul Janssen developed the drug in 1960 in the hopes of improving doctors’ ability to treat pain. The success of the drug, including its capacity to bring relief to those who had grown resistant to pain treatment with other opioids, inspired more and more doctors to use it, with new avenues for deploying fentanyl explored by multiple companies—including tablets, sprays, and lozenges. The intense pain experienced by cancer sufferers was a frequent driving force behind the spread of its use.
It may be shocking to realize that the opioid epidemic in the United States did not begin in the illegal markets, but in the arena of legitimate prescription, where the proportion of patients prescribed opiates skyrocketed in the earliest decades of the twenty-first century. Sometimes, opioids are simply cheaper or easier to administer than other means of pain treatment. In other instances, physicians have been placed under pressure to prescribe opioids even against their professional judgment, according to testimony given to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013. In the latter case, connections between payments made to doctors by pharmaceutical companies and the amount of opioids those doctors prescribe—the higher the number of prescriptions, the higher the payments—were examined by CNN in 2018, in a report titled bluntly: “The More Opioids Doctors Prescribe, the More Money They Make.”
While some see any connection as circumstantial, it is still troubling. “I don’t know if the money is causing the prescribing or the prescribing led to the money, but in either case, it’s potentially a vicious cycle,” said Dr. Michael Barnett of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It’s cementing the idea for these physicians that prescribing this many opioids is creating value.” And “value” here means “profit.”
Many bigger cities around the world have at least one district that has become a virtual open-air drug market. In the U.S., San Francisco is notorious for this, prompting a group of local mothers to organize and purchase a prominent billboard in the city, proclaiming that San Francisco is “famous the world over for our brains, beauty and, now, dirt-cheap fentanyl.” Addicts shooting up can be seen openly in the streets, along with abusers lying unconscious along city roads, as syringes begin to be found scattered like litter and drug-influenced crimes increase. And it is no secret that the growing homeless encampments in areas such as New York and Los Angeles are rife with drug dealing and addiction. One researcher has estimated that as many as 90 percent of the homeless in Los Angeles encampments are drug users, though the figure is disputed. And Philadelphia’s Kensington area was labeled by The New York Times Magazine as “the largest open-air narcotics market for heroin on the East Coast”—called by one resident the “Walmart of Heroin”—and, according to some, strategically maintained to prevent the area’s problems from spreading to the rest of the city.
In such places, the desperate need for the “product” and the possibility of massive profits for selling it help ensure that there is plenty of momentum to keep markets open. As the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted one local heroin dealer, “This is one of the few places in America where you can wake up Monday flat broke and on Tuesday you can have $10,000 in your pocket” (May 21, 2021).
Of course, the United States is not alone. Brazilians might be familiar with Cracolândia, or Crackland, in the impoverished area of Sao Paulo near Luz Station—an area officials attempted to address earlier this year. Tehran, capital of Iran, struggles to manage the area around Davarze Ghar, which translates to “the entrance of the cave” and represents a neighborhood dominated by drug usage and crime.
Like a river flowing to lower ground, where there is demand, supply will find a way to create a market.
Governments are hard-pressed for solutions, and bad ideas are easier to find than good ones.
Station WCVB out of Boston reported in 2020 how the city’s attempts to ease homeless problems in the area created what some call the “Methadone Mile”—fenced-in areas that became virtual headquarters for unrestricted drug use, unrestricted drug sales, and violence. In Portland, where personal use of illegal “hard drugs” has been decriminalized as a social experiment intended to lessen the societal burden of addicts, overdose deaths are now skyrocketing—up 41 percent in 2021 over 2020—and new open-air drug markets have been born.
Seeking to combat overdose deaths, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set aside an initial $30 million in December 2021 to create safe spaces for addicts to take their illegal drugs, providing free syringes and “safer smoking” kits. But U.S. officials should learn from the experience of their Canadian neighbors. In March 2020, the government of Alberta reported on their own efforts to create such “supervised consumption services” (SCS) sites to help reduce the number of overdose deaths. While no deaths were recorded at the facilities themselves, “death rates in the immediate vicinity of the SCS locations increased. Opioid-related calls for emergency medical services (EMS) also increased in the immediate vicinity following the opening of the sites” (Alberta.ca, emphasis ours). Other consequences will not surprise many: The use of non-opioid drugs, meth in particular, increased in many locations; reports of crime and social disorder in the vicinity of the sites generally increased; and needles, used and unused, along with other drug paraphernalia, began to pile up in the public areas “served” by these sites.
Sometimes, it seems, human beings cause the most harm when we are trying to reduce harm. Still, the question remains: What to do? How do you reverse the direction of a world dying to get high?
It’s not just a “big city” problem. In February 2014, the American Journal of Public Health reported that, if anything, the growing opioid problem was proportionally worse in rural, non-metropolitan areas of the U.S. Deaths were more likely, misuse of prescription medications among youth was more probable, and the abuse of multiple drugs and depression were more likely to be involved. If anything, the report notes that the opioid crisis has shown to have a special hold on U.S. states with larger rural, “small town” populations, such as Kentucky, West Virginia, Alaska, and Oklahoma.
As the Brookings Institute has noted in its studies of the U.S. opioid crisis, attempts to prevent drugs such as fentanyl from becoming available illegally in a particular region can be worthwhile, but they cannot be counted upon—and should be recognized as mere delaying actions. Dealing with the crisis must account for the likelihood that, one way or another, these death-dealing substances will make their way to the borders of your own town, the alleys of your own neighborhood, and the thresholds of your own schools.
While legislatures and law enforcement struggle with what to do about the supply of these poisons, the most important end of the problem—demand—is in our own hands.
For those with legitimate medical need who choose to take potentially addictive medicines, prayerfully following instructions and being transparent with their caregivers and loved ones is vital—as is disciplined self-control. King Solomon advised, “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). That is, to the extent we fail to control our thoughts, choices, and actions, we become like an unprotected city—capable of being easily taken over and conquered by those forces that would become our masters and enslave us.
The appeal of many drugs is rooted in the presence of a great void in the lives of those tempted by their promises. That void is caused by a lack of profound and transcendent purpose in life—a purpose that can fill the void and bridge the chasm of hopelessness. Lack of real purpose lies at the heart of many afflictions of modern society. In a real way, the opioid crisis might be seen as a global symptom of the lack of transcendent purpose. And God reveals that we have such a purpose. Human beings are a purposeful creation of the God who reigns over all things. That eternal Being created the universe for the very purpose of giving it to mankind as an inheritance (Hebrews 2:5–8). The planets, stars, and galaxies that dot our night sky were crafted for us by the hand of a Creator who did not make each one of us only for the life we are living now—with its trials and tribulations—but for a glorious, eternal future beyond this life, to which this life is not worthy of comparison (Romans 8:18).
All human lives, from the kings of nations to the homeless battling their addictions, have been made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), and each of us bears in that image a whisper of His desire and purpose for us. Just as Jesus Christ, who is our Creator under God the Father (Colossians 1:13–17), once lived in the flesh and now lives in power as the fully glorified Son of God (Romans 1:4), so too does God intend those now in the flesh to devote themselves to Him and to eventually join Him and His Son in the Family of God (1 Corinthians 15:45–49; Ephesians 3:14–15).
With this understanding in place and planted deeply at the center of who we understand ourselves to be, life will be filled with purpose and meaning. Even our trials—our pains, our losses, and our crushing disappointments—gain meaning as we begin to see them in a larger context and endure them in faith, with God’s help, knowing that He is working through them for a larger and more glorious purpose than the false materialistic abundance and shallow physical pleasures promised by this poisoned and confused world. This purpose far transcends the lying and empty pleasures of opioids.
Sooner than most imagine, the Creator of humanity will return to transform this world into all He and His Father intend it to be. Christ will return to bring the reign of the Kingdom of God to this planet, and with it, times of refreshing and restoration (Acts 3:19–21). Instruction in right ways of life—by the Giver and Designer of life—will spread across the earth, until all long to hear the truths that have been denied them in this world by the deceptive “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Freed from the shackles of deception and a spirit of carnal self-centeredness, the peoples of the world will begin to see that world anew. The contentment and satisfaction of staying grounded in the real world will far outweigh the illusory promises of today’s pills and the siren song of today’s syringes.
Until that time, we can taste tomorrow’s world while still living in today’s, if we commit our lives to following the divine Author of that world as He leads us through this one. Those who have truly “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5) find themselves desiring more of it. But unlike addiction to the destructive chemicals of our day, which draws us further and further into despair and self-loathing, a hunger for more of the life of God draws us ever upward into realms of hope and fulfillment.
It is the continuing mission of Tomorrow’s World to help our readers discover a taste for that world. If you are interested in discovering a satisfaction with life that no drug could ever hope to provide, consider requesting our free booklet What Is the Meaning of Life? There is no drug that could ever hope to compete with the joy of knowing the eternal value of every human life—including yours.