The Opioid Crisis: Roots, Evolution, and Contributors


  • Catherine Sarkis Stanford University


Between 1999 and 2017, 400,000 people died from drug overdoses involving opioids (American Society of Addiction Medicine 1). This is merely a symptom of a greater, concerning trend. Opioids are a class of drugs which includes heroin, but also licit prescription pain relievers such as morphine and fentanyl. Since the 1990s, opioid consumption has risen dramatically, with opioids being increasingly prescribed to patients suffering from chronic pain and other injuries. The prescribing rates for opioids have soared: sales of prescription pain relievers in 2010 were four times those in 1999 (American Society of Addiction Medicine 1). This is extremely worrying. Opioids are known for their highly addictive nature. The seemingly harmless prescription of certain pain relievers has led thousands of patients to life-long dependency on opioids. In addition, this crisis has the potential to affect every single one of us, whether we like it or not, if we are ever in need of prescription pain relievers.

My research this quarter will focus on this opioid crisis that has been affecting the United States since the turn of the century. In my work, I will start by defining the opioid crisis. In particular, I will trace back its historical roots and the circumstances that triggered it, and I will highlight the symptoms of the crisis today. More generally, my research will address the following questions:

  • What is the opioid crisis?
  • What role has the US government played in the crisis ?
  • What role have the pharmaceutical and insurance industries played in the crisis?
  • What are the differences in the portrayals of the opioid crisis by the US government and by the private sector?

Why do these specific questions matter? The ways in which the US government and pharmaceutical and insurance industries have responded to the crisis have been very influential in shaping its evolution. On one hand, the US government has raised awareness on the highly addictive nature of opioids, through powerful ad campaigns and effective policy making. Yet at the same time, the private sector has pushed against these efforts, repeatedly encouraging the use of opioids for pain relief. These conflicting views on the opioid crisis are crucial. Both responses have influenced the public’s perception -- and consumption -- of opioids. These responses will determine for how much longer the crisis will go on, and more importantly, when it will end. 






STS and Our Health