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Opioids, Then and Now

October 23, 2023

By: Emily DeWalt, Prevention Specialist

Opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant and have been used to treat ailments for thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks, Chinese, people of the Middle Ages and Renaissance wrongly considered opium a medicine for all maladies. The use of opium was used in excess while treating soldiers on the battlegrounds of World War I and II. Opium was later used in the 1950s to synthesize morphine- the first manufactured opioid of the time. In the 1990s, subjective pain became recognized as the fifth vital sign in medicine. This, in addition to the pressure placed on providers to prescribe opioids for pain relief, led to the crisis we know today as the Opioid Epidemic.

The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis. It is likely that you know someone- a friend, family member, or even yourself- that has taken pain killers containing opium, a highly addictive substance that has taken the lives many. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has found that the number of people who died from a drug overdose in 2021 was over six times the number in 1999, with over 75% of these deaths involving an opioid.

This rise in deaths due to opioid overdose can be broken down into three distinct waves (see graph below). The first wave’s rise in deaths is attributed to the increase in opioid prescriptions in the 1990s. The data reflects deaths from all forms of the substance, which include natural opioids, semi-synthetic opioids and methadone overdose deaths. The second wave began in 2010, with a rapid increase of overdose deaths due to heroin use. The third wave began in 2013, when overdose deaths due to synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, increased at an alarming rate. This sudden rise can in part be explained by lethal doses of fentanyl (2mg or more for an average-sized man) being added to counterfeit pills, heroin and cocaine unbeknownst to the drug user.

The data clearly indicates the need for government and society at large to take action. Now that we have identified the scope of the problem, what can we do to prevent opioid overdose deaths? Many organizations and agencies take evidence-based approaches to promote drug use prevention in order to combat the opioid crisis. Through prescription drug monitoring programs, efforts to increase community awareness, life skill and drug prevention education in schools, and many other initiatives, there is a strong movement to protect our families and loved ones against the opioid crisis.

Please continue to follow our blog to learn more about safe prescription medication practices, opioid abuse and misuse, how to administer naloxone, drug recovery programs and more!


1. American Academy of Neurology (2019). An 8,000-year History of Use and Abuse of Opium and Opioids: How That Matters For A Successful Control Of The Epidemic?. First published April 16, 2019. Available at:

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2023). Understanding the Opioid Overdose Epidemic. Last reviewed August 8, 2023. Available at:

Image Source

1. Matyszak, Philip (2019). Ancient Peoples Sharing Opium. History Extra. Accessed October 17, 2023. Available at:

2. Three Waves of Opioid Overdose Deaths (2023). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed October 17, 2023. Available at:

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This was really informative! Thank you!

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