How the Media Is Fueling the So-Called Opioid Overdose Epidemic

The media loves headlines about the demon drug du jour.

Whether it is crack babies, meth labs, or heroin overdoses, the media loves scare heads that will sell papers and values these far more than accurate reporting which could save lives. This is why every paper is currently running scare heads about a heroin overdose epidemic that is killing people right and left.

There is just one little problem: these stories are misleading, inaccurate, and killing people with misinformation.

The evidence shows that over 90% of so-called opioid overdose deaths are the result of polydrug poisoning. It is relatively difficult to overdose on heroin alone or painkillers alone, although it can be done if you are determined enough. However, mixing heroin with another drug such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, cocaine, or opioid painkillers is extremely deadly.

The mix of opioids with benzodiazepines or alcohol is not simply additive; it is synergistic. The respiratory center in the brain contains both opioid and GABA receptors, and when the opioid receptors are shut down by heroin and the GABA receptors are shut down by alcohol or a benzodiazepine, the result is death.

The news media and television could be saving countless lives every day if they were running non-stop headlines about the dangers of drug mixing, but they are not. They have been bewitched by the myth of the “demon drug” and prefer to run stories inaccurately labeling opioid-related deaths as heroin overdoses instead of accurately reporting them as polydrug poisonings due to drug mixing.

The reason drug mixing is so common is that the current crop of new opioid users simply does not know how dangerous it is. This has not always been the case; as Edward Brecher attests, old time junkies in New York City used to pass on information about drug mixing to each other and they avoided it like the plague it is. If today’s opioid users were equally well-informed of the dangers of drug mixing, most would avoid it and countless lives could be saved.

The reason drug mixing is so common is that the current crop of new opioid users simply does not know how dangerous it is.-Kenneth Anderson

Another myth propagated by the press is that only heroin leads to overdose death and that painkiller addiction is dangerous because it is a gateway drug to heroin, which will cause people to overdose and die. In reality, twice as many opioid poisoning deaths in the US involve painkillers as involve heroin. And let me reiterate that whether heroin or a painkiller is involved, over 90% of these deaths involve drug mixing. Figure 1 shows the CDC data for drug poisoning deaths in the US in 2013.


Figure 2 shows the percentage of opioid painkiller overdose deaths involving another drug in 2011 in New York City. As we see from this figure, drug mixing is extremely common in drug poisoning deaths.

Another extremely dangerous and deadly myth spread by the media is the myth of increased drug purity–the so-called “super heroin” as exemplified by this recent story in the New York Post.

The truth is that heroin purity peaked in New York City in 1995 at 70% pure and is only now approaching that level of purity again.  But there was no spike in opioid poisoning deaths in New York City in 1995 because there were a lot fewer people mixing drugs and dying in 1995. Drug mixing kills; not drug purity.

The safest heroin is 100% pure prescription heroin which can be obtained at heroin maintenance programs in Europe. When the purity is known then the safe dosage can be calculated. Uncertainty in heroin purity in the US is a contributing factor to opioid poisoning deaths which could be eliminated by prescription heroin as is done in sane countries.

Another huge set of myths spread by the media which are exacerbating the polydrug poisoning epidemic in the US are myths about effective and ineffective treatments. The evidence is resoundingly and unequivocally in favor of the following strategies for preventing drug poisoning deaths:

  • Overdose prevention training
  • Narcan/naloxone distribution
  • Safe injection facilities
  • Maintenance with methadone or Suboxone/buprenorphine
  • Heroin maintenance

Although the above strategies are all proven effective, the media either condemns them wholeheartedly or claims that they are somehow controversial. The media also promotes the myths that 28-day 12-step rehabs and NA meetings are effective at curing addiction and that no one can recover from addiction without treatment and AA/NA – that untreated addiction is 100% fatal. This, of course, is belied by every scientific epidemiological study such as NESARC which shows that the vast majority of people who kick an addiction do it on their own without rehab ad without the 12-steps.

Methadone has been studied now for over 50 years and it is thoroughly established that methadone maintenance reduces death rates to one fourth of those of active heroin users. Maintenance treatment with methadone or Suboxone is the gold standard for treating opioid dependence. Patients on the proper dosage of maintenance medications are neither high nor sick – they are normal and functional.

The media is even blaming the Charleston shootings by Dylann Roof on Suboxone, which makes about as much sense as blaming Dillinger’s bank robberies on his cigarette habit.-Kenneth AndersonI have literally hundreds of friends who are employed and living normal lives thanks to methadone. But what does the media tell us about maintenance treatment? On King of the Hill Season 2 Episode 19, we see that methadone makes people loaded out of their minds and too high to function at work. Dr. Drew tells us that methadone and Suboxone are drugs of abuse, that they are not acceptable options for the treatment of opioid dependence, and that “Methadone just takes your soul away. It’s no way to live.”

The media is even blaming the Charleston shootings by Dylann Roof on Suboxone, which makes about as much sense as blaming Dillinger’s bank robberies on his cigarette habit. The media ought to be running stories on how many lives are saved and how many people are rehabilitated by the lifesaving medications methadone and Suboxone.

However, the media prefers to give us tales of lives saved by 12-step rehabs and 12-step NA meetings like Sandra Bullock in 28 Days. Script writers have magic powers to make fantasy appear to be reality, to make a house fall on the Wicked Witch of the West, to empower Mickey Mouse to give life to inanimate brooms, or to imbue rehab programs with great success rates. However, the reality does not match the fiction.

The research shows us that graduates of 28 day abstinence-based rehabs are over 30 times more likely to die of heroin-related drug poisoning (so-called “overdose”) than untreated heroin addicts continuing to use on the streets. This was the kind of rehab Dr. Drew was running on television where he killed five of his patients. Odds are that if Dr. Drew had maintained these patients on methadone instead of telling them to surrender to a “Higher Power” every single one would still be alive.

Narcotics Anonymous has its own share of blame to shoulder for perpetuating and exacerbating the epidemic of drug poisoning deaths. The Narcotics Anonymous position statement on methadone says that anyone on this life-saving medication is an active addict who is still using and is ineligible for membership unless they express a desire to get off the medication that is saving their lives. NA tells people on methadone that they should not share at meetings lest they contaminate those who are actually “clean,” but that they should just shut up and listen.

…in spite of all the NA meetings people have been coerced into attending the number of opioid poisoning deaths still continues to grow each year.-Kenneth AndersonHow many people has NA killed with these shaming tactics and its desire to practice medicine without a license? Well let’s put it this way – in spite of all the NA meetings people have been coerced into attending the number of opioid poisoning deaths still continues to grow each year. Yet the gospel according to television melodrama is that the wages of not going to NA is death.

I would like to lay down a challenge to the New York Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal and every other voice of the media to publish the truth about polydrug poisoning and the benefits of methadone, safe injection facilities, and heroin maintenance tomorrow and keep screaming the truth into people’s ears every day until we cut the number of drug poisoning deaths down to a fraction of what they currently are. It shouldn’t take long if the media does an abrupt about-face and starts telling the people the truth about drugs and addiction treatment.

Or the media can keep doing what they have been doing and putting the blame on mythic “super heroin” and pushing 28-day 12-step rehabs and NA the same as always…and we can watch the death toll continue to mount. The choice is yours.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rehabs.com. We do believe in healthy dialogue on all topics and we welcome the opinions of our professional contributors.

What Are Your Thoughts on this Topic?

  • Jeff Foote

    chart 2 confused me ken…must be sleepy…but another well written explanation of some of our worst cultural habits…..by the way…78% of methadone programs themselves 20 years ago were underdosing clients…because drugs are bad!!…now we seem to have that number most recently down to 22%…so sometimes the needle moves in the right direction..thanks Ken as always!

    • kennethanderson

      Hi Jeff

      Many people mix three or more drugs which is why the numbers in chart two add up to more than 100%.

  • http://AddictionMyth.com/ AddictionMyth

    Thank you for dispelling some of the deadly myths about the overdose epidemic. Yes I think the media is to blame, but for too long we’ve let them get away with their propaganda. It must be called out when we see it. I’ve seen a lot more open criticism going on over the past year or so, and it is very heartening. Things are changing. There are fewer and fewer such ‘demon drug’ stories.

    However, I’m not 100% with you on the cause of death in these cases. Yes it is due to polydrug overdose. However, it is not caused by ‘ignorance’. These people know how deadly mixing is. They are not stupid (even if they want you to believe they are lol). It is caused by suicide bullying at 12 Step cults and it is caused by pain patients getting cut off from the drugs they need due to the crackdown, who then overdose out of frustration (as shown by numerous comments in a recent Maia Szalavitz article on vice about the CDC recommendations). Which only exacerbates the vicious, tragic cycle.

    The solution? End the crackdown (Szalavitz writes a persuasive piece) and stop the suicide bullying at AA/NA and teach kids “Don’t steal drugs from your parents’ friends’ medicine cabinets because that could lead to a disease that makes you steal drugs from your parents’ friends’ medicine cabinets.”

  • Zitake

    I have to vehemently disagree with this statement; “It is relatively difficult to overdose on heroin alone or painkillers
    alone, although it can be done if you are determined enough.”
    That’s simply not true. It’s not difficult at all to overdose on heroin or painkillers alone and no determination is needed. I’ve taken several overdoses, easily and accidentally. If you’re not aware of what your tolerance level is, the drugs are stronger than you expect or you take a little extra hoping for a better buzz overdose can easily happen.

    • http://AddictionMyth.com/ AddictionMyth

      Nope. People who say things like that have a long history of suicide attempts and institutionalizations. Of course you will cry, “That was different!” To which I can only suggest you talk to your doctor.

    • Thomas Mofield

      Heroin has a very narrow effective to fatal range, and that is what makes it dangerous as compared to other opiates/opioids. The biggest problem is many recovery programs is that they do not provide enough education on this subject. Individuals who take heroin and other opiates/opioids build up a tolerance that can be fatal to non tolerant individuals. When those opiate/opioid tolerant individuals go into recovery for a period of time, their tolerance drops significantly. The lacking education on the subject of efficacy to fatal range often causes a problem where a person who relapses starts taking the same dose that they were on prior to their recovery period. Coupled with dual drug use such as alcohol or benzodiazepines, an overdose is more probable than not. Harm reduction education would save lives by making it clear that if a person relapses, they should take a much lower dose; the same dose that they took as if they were taking the same class of drugs for the FIRST TIME EVER. Additionally I believe that Naloxone should be given in a similar manner as an epinephrine pen for those with allergies. People who are recovering opiate/opioid addicts are at an increased risk of overdose and Naloxone would be a humane preventative that could save many lives.

  • Anna Lawless

    In the Uk all heroin users in treatment were first forced to switch from prescription heroin to methadone, then from injecting methadone to oral, but at the same dose as intravenous, leading to under dosing. Many doctors prescribed large amounts of benzodiazapams because of the synergy, so that those on methadone could continue working. 30 years later some are still using both, living as normal lives as possible, but suffering physical damage because of the forced switch to low dose methadone plus benzodiazapams who attempted to stop completely. I know some who were clean for a year, but semi-invalids. A single heroin dose within 3 months brought them back to full health, others stopped completely for a year or more and are still ill over 20 years after returning to low-dose methadone and benzodiazapams prescribed by doctors.

  • Carmel Parker

    I am a her ion addict and my name is carmel and I used to low 5th go to meeting nod listen to other people’s life experiences until I mentioned I was on methadone and I ended up leaving crying due to the things people had said. I will have six years in September and I consider myself clean I’m not the same person at all and I still work a program just not the way other people choose too but I’m happy.

    • http://AddictionMyth.com/ AddictionMyth

      Wow. The more I hear about NA the more it sounds like a nasty bullying cult. I’ve actually heard someone accused of ‘blasphemy’ for criticizing the Big Book and they were completely serious!

  • Silver Damsen

    Another great article by Kenneth Anderson. I really like how this one ties in the issues of misrepresentation in the media with misrepresentations in 12 Step Program and shows how these lies are killing people.

  • johnctoliver

    Sorry, I’m not going to scapegoat the media for people making stupid enough decisions to mix drugs and overdose. Millions of former addicts have been helped with these recovery programs and 12 step methods, so it’s silly to rule them out as useless too. http://www.myvictorycenter.com.

    • Matty L

      Yea bit oyster not the only way. There is SMART recovery, religions, or simply being done with ot. Its wrong to view these 12 step programs as the only solution. Yes, AA/NA without a doubt have the highest success rate, and I don’t believe of u really work ot will mevwt fail, not rarely.the programs is tuw perfect almost bit tuw fellowship is not. Being told u don’t belong(which has happens to me out of my first detoxify at 18 fore heroin I went to an as mewing cuz it was on the same block as my house, and the dwell oxide said it didn’t matter u went to, so I went early all about trying Yo get sober and when o told an old man why I was there he said I didn’t belong. “Why don’t u go to ha or say, those are also 12 step programs)is fucked up. Now almost 12 years I am in active addiction. I’ve had clean time, and with AA years later (I had just shy or yep years and have had a year more than a few times)of I go to a program all they preach is AA. That’s why I don’t go anymore cause I literally won’t heat Anthony new. The true tradegy is kids just don’t care. O started using 12 ago bit have been abusing drugs since the aye of 12, and I had no idea about heroin. My whole perception of it was from movies. I thought it was liquid, I thought yup instantly became physically addicted and lived on a card board box. No one I knew did it before me. Or like to think if it was the epidemic I wouldn’t have started. I mean who knows I still do ot knowing now. Kids take these painkillers cause they come from a doctor and it no big deal and them when ot gets too experience.wove thy switch to dope cuz its cheaper and people will say oo the pills u were doing is basically synthetic heroin anyways
      Cause that’s how ot was for me and a lot of my friends. Heroin still is taboo and I never would’ve went straight to that of not for the pulls. Its ‘nfpetunate but this giant ending soon and many more will doe, bit hopefully its so that others can live.

      • Matty L

        There are mad mistakes my autocorret is messed up….but of u don’t understand something just ask. I love discussing this topic

  • Cindy Ryan-Creen

    the problem we see is that patients are being taken off painkillers, cold turkey , mistreated, judged, discriminated against and feel they have no other way t ocontrol pain as they cant get medical care. we are forced to have insurance, or be taxed, fined whatever u call it. problem is no one takes Medicaid, people are being turned away, they are not getting their medications. even like high blood pressure meds, because doctors wont except Medicaid patients, either its the dea is controlling what I can do or not do. so im going to send u into full fledge withdrawal by not renewing your scripts. and by the way they wont take Medicaid patients to even treat them, when u call the office they ask what insurance and then all of the sudden your tone has changed, ur not nice to me on the phone, and I am a Medicaid junkie, what the hell, I am glad there is a doctor list of who not to go to. I hope it does some good for patients who cant get care.

  • Jiva Das

    I disagree with two parts, one is heroin is actually very easy to overdose on alone. As a 21 year heroin addict I’ve seen it as well as experienced it. The second point I disagree on is 12 step programs do not have a high success rate. Not even close. It ranges from 5-12%. The success rate of Buprenorphine treatment ranges from 48-62%. There’s also a natural “cure” rate of 5% where addicts kick their addiction without any treatment at all so really the 12 step rate is 0-8%. I love the claim that the program has saved millions. Where are they? As a 18 year veteran of NA I can attest to the fact that you’ll be lucky to find even 5 people with ten or more years clean in any meeting. Also if millions were getting clean through the 12 steps their numbers would be rising rather than declining. By their own calculations about 90% drop out in the first 90 days. So the millions saved number just doesn’t add up. All in all this was a great article. Although there really is a heroin epidemic, it’s use has quadrupled in the last 10 years and that’s from self reporting so the numbers are likely higher. I do think there needs to be more discussion on the problem of benzos. The majority of overdose deaths are a combination of opiates and benzos. Also users do not shy away from the fact, most opiate addicts combine the two fully aware of the danger.

    • Thomas Mofield

      I don’t think the author was advocating for the detox or the abstinence models of treating drug addiction. I think he was trying to speak to the dangers associated with the influence of media hyper-focus and the pseudo-science peddlers who do advocate for rapid detox and abstinence. No one should be checked into a treatment facility and forced to go through severe withdrawal symptoms when there are alternatives. I don’t think it is humane to force someone to the brink of seizure, hallucination, violent vomiting and diarrhea, and near death. In my opinion such treatments should be illegal as they are reminiscent of early 20th century insane asylums where patients were stored out of sight of the “proper public” and experimented on with drugs, surgical procedures (lobotomies), and electroshock.

      I am so glad that America finally has people advocating the Harm-Reduction (a.k.a humane and caring) model, rather than the Spanish Inquisition (detox/abstinence) models of previous generations (sorry of the sour tone, but this ticks me off).

      I am not a substance abuser, but I have a degree in psychology and sociology, and have a strong interest in helping veterans overcome life obstacles, so I have seen the damage both in numbers, and in the faces of those treated with the detox/abstinence models.

  • kay ledford

    I agree with most of the article. The media does love to go on about opiate addiction and deaths without really explaining that less than 0.001% of the population dies per year from this boogeyman and the overall percentage of the population addicted to any mind altering substance has remained steady at about 9% of the poplulation. Moreover we never hear as much about the rise in use of antidepressants. Most of which are no better than placebos unless you are a shareholder in the drug companies that produce them that is. And don’t even get me started on alcohol which is the worst kind of evil imho yet is sold in every corner store. IU spent years in treatment for my drug seeking behavior and opiate addiction. None of it helped not NA or any other type of program. I lived with that label “the Addict”until it almost killed me. My pain wasn’t all in my head. It was all over my body and had been slowly killing me for over 20 years. I have a rare form of ANCA vasculitis that causes extreme pain and leads to organ failure if left untreated. Doctors here in the USA are so afraid of paitents that present with chronic pain that they send them to pain specialist that throw pain medicine at the problem instead of trying to figure out what the problem is. I pity the doctors that have to practice defensive medicine because if they write too many rxsa for pain meds the dea can take their house and practice. I pity our population that is mad to think if something feels good it has to be bad and I especially feel outraged that our “free” country has a court system that mandates unscientific ineffective and dangerous AA/NA treatment for those with legal problems arising from this asinine war on drugs. Humans have been experimenting with mind altering drugs since the crawled out of their caves. It is just part of the human condition and sometimes peoples lives are cut short from that behavior but hell no one gets out of this alive.

  • Thomas Mofield

    Everything you have claimed is backed up by years of repeated research done by many different universities in various fields such as sociology and psychology, however, the opinions of the DEA and FDA, and now the CDC seem to override research while few in the medical or mental health communities are protesting. Even CNN’s Sanjay Gupta (who appeared to be walking down the path of science concerning cannabis) is adopting and peddling the pseudo-science, flawed research, and erroneous statistical calculations put out by the DEA, FDA, and CDC. Mr. Anderson, I applaud you, and think that you may be something of a black sheep amongst your peers. I am surprised that the CDC is joining the FDA and DEA to push a moral rather than scientific agenda. Again, Thank You.

  • Charlie Jervis

    Absolutely wonderful article. I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly. I’ve been saying this for years, and trying to help those who would benefit from Methadone or Buprenorphine go in for treatment. There’s so much misinformation and misguided emotional bias surrounding these treatment plans that it is truly dangerous. Please spread the obvious truth.

  • James Quentin Walsh

    I am a professional who works in one of these 28 day programs. I am not a big fan of AA NA, and I am quick to call out their and our own programs shortcomings. I am huge advocate for medication assisted therapy. That is, suboxone, methadone, naloxone, etc. This is great article, and I would love to start advocating at higher level myself.

  • Nick Name

    I Just use alcohol now occasionally for recreation and anxiety relief, that business of you are an addict and must stay stone cold sober forever harms alot of people. For some never using anything is a good idea, been around this long enough and can’t deny that.

  • John black

    Hahaha nothing will ever be done. Our leaders don’t want the masses to know the truth because they want people to die. They want to tell us what we can and can’t put in to our bodies and because of the “children”. Oh lordie lord please think about the children. So they make drugs more illegal, more difficult to get and demonize and throw addicts in jail for not following your twisted sick abstinence programs. Not everyone has nice happy lives. Some people live in a state of constant misery in their minds and Bodies on a daily basis. Drugs were put here to help us not to demonize and be afraid of. I can’t believe I live in the supposed most free nation on earth who’s governemnt has the nerve to outlaw drugs as it see fit. Our government is courrupt and way too big. Teach people the truth. That pure drugs by themselves like heroin are actually quite safe. Very addicting but heroin doesn’t damage any major organs. It’s all about money. That’s it and quite possibly population control. They know people will die from using tainted random purity drugs. They don’t care about us one bit. Then they make prescription drugs harder to get so you know what chronic pain patients do? They blow their brains out. Oh but good job you got a couple addicts to go further underground. Good for you governement. Good for you DEA. You must love your money even from marijuana. No wonder those basterds are pushing so hard to keep it illegal. Big middle finger up to all of you.

  • X90

    Alcohol-Related Deaths: Tell me again, what is the epidemic and why they don’t ban alcohol?

    An estimated 88,0009 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women9) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.10

    In 2014, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 9,967 deaths (31 percent of overall driving fatalities).11

    In 2010, alcohol misuse cost the United States $249.0 billion.12

    Consequences—Researchers estimate that each year:

    1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from
    alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle crashes.23

    696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.24

    97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.24

    Roughly 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for AUD.25

    About 1 in 4 college students report academic consequences from
    drinking, including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly
    on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.26