By Chris Adams

The nation is deep into an epidemic of misuse, overdose and death from opioids, and federal scientists are still working to understand how the drugs get into people’s hands and how their bodies are affected.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, the deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse described ongoing research projects into opioids, both legal (oxycodone) and illegal (heroin, forms of fentanyl). The institute is part of the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s premier biomedical research facility.

Some of Dr. Wilson Compton’s research has focused on where drugs come from: A 2017 study, for example, documented that more than half of the prescription opioids that patients misused came from friends or relatives – most likely the friend or relative’s prescription but sometimes their friends or relatives.

Overall, there are far more prescription opioids washing around the United States than other countries. A map of the world showing the level of pain medication to the level of pain need shows the U.S. with far more than necessary – and most other nations with only a fraction of what they need.

“There’s a raging fire of overdose deaths,” Compton said, noting “an increase in every single state in every single region.”

Scientists at NIDA or those funded by NIDA grants are focused on several other avenues of research, including the link between prescription opioid use and later heroin use; the rapid increase of fentanyl and counterfeit fentanyl; and promising new pain therapeutics.

He also reviewed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services opioid strategy, which includes improving pain management; boosting availability of overdose-reducing drugs; improving access to prevention and treatment; strengthening public health data; and supporting new research.