5 Books That Will Help You Understand The Opioid Epidemic

The current opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and overdoses are now the leading cause of death in people under 50. Almost everyone has been affected by the epidemic in some way — whether they’ve struggled with addiction themselves, watched a loved one suffer, or been the victim of drug-related crime.

However, understanding exactly what led to the epidemic can be tricky. A wide variety of social, political, and economic factors have played a part, and news articles about the epidemic don’t always tell the whole story.

If you’re ready to gain a deeper understanding of this important issue, the books below are a great place to start.

1. Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

Written by British Journalist Johann Hari, this book goes right back to the start of the so-called, ‘War on Drugs’. Hari explains the circumstances that lead to the criminalisation of drugs, and sheds light on the racism inherent in the early days of drug policy.

The book describes the devastating consequences of draconian drug laws, designed to punish addicts rather than treat them, and Hari interviews drug dealers, users, lawmakers, and doctors to put together a clear and vivid picture of the war on drugs.

The book contains shocking facts, stories and revelations you’ve likely never heard before — from the appalling treatment of addicts in prison, to the children growing up in neighborhoods flooded with drugs.

While the book paints a fairly bleak picture of the current situation, the final chapter describes the benefits of decriminalizing drugs, and touches on how it’s already working in other countries. It’s a cautiously optimistic ending that gives some hope to the reader.

If you’re looking for a gripping journalistic story that gets right to the roots of the drug problem we’re currently facing, this is the book for you. It combines historical and political details with real-life accounts and interviews to create a gripping and important story.

2. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté

Looking for a medical analysis of the opioid epidemic? This book focuses on the social, cultural and biological causes of addiction, and is a great read for anyone who’s ever been touched by addiction.

The author, Dr Gabor Maté, describes his work with some of the most troubled drug addicts in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside, and refers periodically to his own unusual addiction — to music. This unusual approach shines a light on the different forms addiction can take and drives home the fact that it can affect almost anyone.

The book is filled with riveting first-hand accounts of addiction, stories of individual patients, and details on the neurobiological causes of addiction.

If you’ve ever wondered what causes addiction and why people respond differently to treatment, this will be an enlightening read.

3. Clean by David Sheff

David Sheff has first-hand experience of addiction, having also written a memoir titled, ‘Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction’.

Sheff addresses the common belief that addiction is a moral failing, and instead portrays drug dependence as a health problem which needs treatment. He provides scientific evidence to explain how drugs work, and covers how addiction can be prevented and treated.

As well as talking in-depth about how to help addicts, the book addresses the wider benefits of tackling the epidemic. Sheff argues that battling addiction will have a long list of knock-on effects — from strengthening the US economy to improving family relationships and reducing suicide rates.

This is an optimistic book from a man who’s been directly affected by the addiction of a family member, making it an excellent read for anyone struggling to come to terms with someone else’s addiction.

4. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

Pain management has played a huge role in the opioid epidemic we’re now facing, and journalist Sam Quinones covers this in detail in Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.

He explains how many heroin users started out taking prescribed pain pills like Oxycontin, before graduating onto harder drugs. Details on how Oxycontin was marketed as a ‘risk-free’ drug by pharmaceutical companies help the reader to understand what’s been going on behind the scenes of the epidemic.

Like Chasing the Scream, the book includes interviews with everyone from drug dealers and addicts to doctors and politicians, giving the reader excellent insight into every facet of the epidemic.

If you’re wondering how something like this could have happened in America, this book has the answers.

5. Opium: A History by Martin Booth

While the other books in this list touch briefly on the history of opiates, this is the only book that goes way back — as far as explaining how opium was used by prehistoric people during religious rituals. It continues through history, covering everything from the influence of opium on Romantic writers through to heroin addicts in Hollywood.

The book details how opium is grown and harvested, taking the mystery out of how opiates are produced. It covers the early opium smuggling operations, opium wars, and medical and legal developments around opiates over the years. Since the book was published in 1999, it can feel a little outdated in areas. However, it’s still a really valuable, full-length history of the drugs that are causing so many issues today.

Knowing the history of a topic is the best way to fully understand it, so this book is ideal for anyone who’s looking to go a little deeper in their quest to understand the current epidemic.

Understand the opioid epidemic is the first step towards solving it. Whether you’re struggling with addiction yourself, supporting a loved one, or just worrying about the future of the country, reading these books is a valuable use of your time.

Photo by Radu Marcusu on Unsplash