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The opioid death toll: a real American horror story

David Cheskin/PA Archive/PA Images

David Cheskin/PA Archive/PA Images

October 19, 2017   2 mins

As Americans gear up for Halloween, the country’s opioid epidemic continues to stalk the land, destroying lives wherever it goes.

Unlike previous drug epidemics it doesn’t appear to be associated with a general rise in crime. However, police forces are being stretched by the sheer number of fatal and near-fatal overdoses.

Unsurprisingly, the death toll is also putting pressure on America’s medical examiners. In a report for the New York Times, Katherine Q Seelye focuses on the work of Dr. Thomas A. Andrew, the chief medical examiner of New Hampshire:

“‘It’s almost as if the Visigoths are at the gates, and the gates are starting to crumble,’ Dr. Andrew said. ‘I’m not an alarmist by nature, but this is not overhyped. It has completely overwhelmed us.’”

The statistics are horrifying:

“With 64,000 overdose deaths last year nationwide – a staggering 22 percent jump over the previous year – it is little wonder that overdoses, the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, are reducing life expectancy. They are also straining the staffs and resources of morgues, and causing major backlogs.

“This is especially true in New Hampshire, which has more deaths per capita from synthetic opioids like fentanyl than any other state. Last year the overdose death toll here reached nearly 500, almost 10 times the number in 2000.”

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine (hence the high risk of overdose); but this isn’t the limit of the opioid danger:

“The arrival in May in New Hampshire of carfentanil — the elephant tranquilizer that is 10,000 times as potent as morphine — has also ratcheted up pressure on [Dr Andrew’s] office…

“‘It makes me feel like my hair is on fire, and I don’t even have hair,’ [He] said of the threat of increasingly potent drugs. ‘We’re already so far behind the eight-ball here, if we have an influx of carfentanil in this state, heaven help us.’”

An appeal to heaven is not one that he makes lightly:

“His plan is to become an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church…

“For him, there is comfort in the concept of an afterlife.

“‘I’m very, very hopeful for what comes after this, because this –’ he said, gesturing toward the woman he had just autopsied – ‘is pretty awful.’”

It’s right and proper to debate the immediate causes of the opioid epidemic – and on UnHerd we have, for instance here, here and here; but we also need to look at the deeper causes. When people turn to elephant tranquillisers to fill the void in their lives then that is some void.

Whether or not one shares Dr. Andrew’s religious faith, we need to consider this crisis in all of its aspects – economic, social, medical, legal, political and spiritual.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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