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Afghanistan and Iraq veterans were the 'ground zero' of the opioid crisis: Study

Cassidy Morrison | Washington Examiner

Veterans who were stationed in Afghan and Iraqi war zones after the 9/11 terror attacks have been hit hardest by the opioid crisis, according to new research.

Veterans of the global war on terrorism are experiencing an opioid epidemic nearly twice as severe as the one plaguing civilians, according to a new study distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Researchers affiliated with the University of Connecticut, University of Georgia, and San Diego State University concluded that combat veterans who were deployed after the 9/11 attacks have an opioid abuse rate about seven times higher than civilians who have never served in a combat zone.

“While grim national statistics about the ‘worst drug overdose epidemic in history’ are increasingly well known to the American public, far less well known is that combat veterans constitute a population at ground zero of this crisis,” the authors concluded.

They found that veterans not only deal with chronic pain that has to be treated when they return from war zones, but also post-traumatic stress that sometimes leads to drug use as a coping mechanism.

Many cases of prescription opioid and heroin abuse arise from treating chronic pain from serious injuries, but the study's authors say that veterans didn’t even have to be in the line of fire everyday to show an increased risk of opiate abuse and post-traumatic stress.

The Department of Defense saw the problem coming early on, and mandated annual random drug testing in 2002 for all military service members. The drug testing panel did not include prescription opioids until 2005, however, when the epidemic was well underway.

Veterans Affairs has cut the number of prescriptions for opioids since 2012 by almost half, due primarily to increased prescription costs for patients, but researchers behind the study say veterans could be turning to heroin to replace prescription opioids that are now too expensive to fill.

The Defense Department promotes non-drug treatments for chronic pain, including acupuncture and yoga, but another treatment is gaining in popularity — medical marijuana.

The study, which has not undergone peer review, notes that states that have legalized medical marijuana and opened dispensaries have seen lower rates of opioid addiction and overdose deaths. But marijuana is still a Schedule I drug along with heroin and ecstasy thanks in part to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions who, in early 2018, nixed Obama-era policies of non-interference with state laws that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana use.

The paper's authors say that medical marijuana "may provide an alternative, less addictive, and less unhealthy means of treating pain," but the Sessions memo may have inadvertently hurt efforts to treat veterans effectively and safely.

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