The U.S. spends around $15 billion a year fighting illegal drugs, often on foreign soil. But America’s deadliest drug epidemic begins and ends at home. More than 15,000 Americans now die annually after overdosing on prescription painkillers called opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—more than from heroin, cocaine and all other illegal drugs combined.
Rising opioid abuse means that drug overdoses are now the single largest cause of accidental death in America. They surpassed traffic accidents in 2009, the most recent CDC data available.
Paradoxically, the legality of prescription painkillers makes their abuse harder to tackle. There is no Pablo Escobar to capture or kill. Authorities must contend with an influential lobby of industry representatives and doctors who argue against more restrictions, saying they would harm legitimate patients. And lawmakers have been reluctant to have the federal government track Americans’ prescriptions, leaving states to piece together a patchy, fragmented response.