The Opioid Crisis: What is it?

Executive Summary

Key Questions: What is the Opioid Crisis? What resources are available to address issues related to prevention, harm reduction, and treatment protocols?

This article provides an introduction to the opioid crisis and provides links to related resources designed to further elaborate on this growing problem, with the aim of stimulating discussion and collaboration to foster innovation in this area.

The opioid epidemic or opioid crisis is the rapid increase in the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs globally in the 2010s, resulting in harm to those using and numerous preventable deaths. [1]

The Opioid Crisis is a multidimensional complex problem covering the entire care continuum:

  • Prevention includes strategies to prevent opioid misuse, opioid prescribing and dispensing
  • Harm reduction includes strategies to reduce drug-related harms, safe injection sites, use of naloxone and other drugs to combat overdoses
  • Treatment Information includes improvement strategies for established and emerging opioid addiction or opioid misuse disorders
  • Police Interdiction includes improvement strategies for global and local policing to reduce supplies


For more information: Opioid Crisis Management: Foundation Roadmap

We are interested in generating some discussion on this topic in our Opioid Crisis Management Community. Please visit this space to join the conversation. 


Introduction to the Opioid Crisis

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, "overdose deaths, particularly from prescription drugs and heroin, have reached epidemic levels." This statement is supported by the data: 

  • Drug overdoses have since become the leading cause of death in Americans under age 50, with two-thirds of those deaths caused by opioids. In 2006, 62,000 Americans died from overdoses, 19 percent more than in 2015, and had killed more Americans in one year than both the wars in Vietnam and Iraq combined. While death rates varied by state, public health experts estimate that nationwide over 500,000 people could die from the epidemic over the next 10 years. [1]
  • Nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths in 2016 involved prescription opioids.
  • From 1999 to 2008, overdose death rates, sales, and substance abuse treatment admissions related to opioid pain relievers all increased substantially. By 2015, annual overdose deaths surpassed deaths from both car accidents and guns. [1] 
  • In 2016, Canada reported 2,816 apparent opioid-related deaths. The use of one or more types of non-opioid substances were involved in 84 percent of these deaths. [2]
  • Between 2011 and 2015, there were 8096 registered opioid-related deaths in England and Wales, suggesting a global problem. [3]
  • Mortality rates are the highest on record, having doubled in the 3 years preceding 2015. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, of all drug-related deaths, 54 percent involved opioids. [3]

Open Data

Open data repositories display geographical trends and statistics pertaining to the Opioid Crisis and are a useful resource in measuring trends over time: Open Data Repository: the Opioid Crisis

Key Takeaways

Opioid overdose kills an unacceptable number of individuals every year. Many of those deaths are preventable through the timely provision of a relatively cheap, safe and effective drug and the summoning of emergency responders. As with most public health problems, there is no magic bullet to preventing overdose deaths. A comprehensive solution that includes reductions in inappropriate opioid prescribing, increased access to evidence-based treatment, de-stigmatization and de-criminalization of addiction are likely necessary to create large-scale, lasting change. Rigorous evaluation of these changes should be a priority to ensure that legal changes have the intended effect and to suggest additional amendments.[4]

Related Resources