Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books:
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, up from some 64,000 the previous year and 52,000 the year before that—a staggering increase with no end in sight. Most involved opioids.
A few definitions are in order. The term opioid is now used to include opiates, which are derivatives of the opium poppy, and opioids, which originally referred only to synthesized drugs that act in the same way as opiates do. Opium, the sap from the poppy, has been used throughout the world for thousands of years to treat pain and shortness of breath, suppress cough and diarrhea, and, maybe most often, simply for its tranquilizing effect. The active constituent of opium, morphine, was not identified until 1806. Soon a variety of morphine tinctures became readily available without any social opprobrium, used, in some accounts, to combat the travails and boredom of Victorian women. (Thomas Jefferson was also an enthusiast of laudanum, one of the morphine tinctures.) Heroin, a stronger opiate made from morphine, entered the market later in the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that synthetic or partially synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, methadone, oxycodone (Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid), were developed.
In 1996 a new form of oxycodone called OxyContin came on the market, and three recent books—Beth Macy’s Dopesick, Chris McGreal’s American Overdose, and Barry Meier’s Pain Killer—blame the opioid epidemic almost entirely on its maker, Purdue Pharma.