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Any public health official interested in resolving North America’s opioid crisis should be looking towards national legalization of medical marijuana. That’s the conclusion of two new studies recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine, an American Medical Association journal.

“In this time when we are so concerned — rightly so — about opiate misuse and abuse and the mortality that’s occurring, we need to be clear-eyed and use evidence to drive our policies,” said W. David Bradford, an economist at the University of Georgia and an author of one of the studies. “If you’re interested in giving people options for pain management that don’t bring the particular risks that opiates do, states should contemplate turning on dispensary-based cannabis policies.”

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Justin, a participant in a class on opioid overdose prevention held by non-profit Positive Health Project, practices with Naloxone on teacher Kieth Allen on August 9, 2017 in New York City. The weekly class offers individuals free training with Naloxone and everyone receives an overdose kit on completion of the hour course. According to the latest data available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 35,000 people across America died of heroin or opioid overdoses in 2015. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As the opioid epidemic continues to ravage many Americans, aggressive tactics are being used to fight back. Earlier this month, the Surgeon General issued a statement urging Americans to start carrying the opioid overdose antidote, known as naloxone.

This is the first Surgeon General warning that has been issued in over a decade. The last warning issued referred to drinking during pregnancy.

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Christopher Heide, who recounts his struggles with opioid addiction in the following article. Heide is now a substance abuse disorder clinician based in Seattle. (Photo Credit: Chris Monsos)

Imagine feeling so thirsty and hungry that your entire survival depends on quenching it. Now imagine that same mighty thirst for drugs and alcohol. An urge so powerful it tells you that you will die without them. That is just a small glimpse of what it is like to be an addict.

America is currently in the midst of a devastating opioid epidemic. In 2016 alone, 64,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, which is more than the number of casualties from the Iraq and Vietnam wars combined. Unfortunately, addiction is heavily stigmatized and misunderstood, and many people believe that the disease is the result of a choice, a moral failing or lack of willpower. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 24: A man uses heroin under a bridge where he lives with other addicts in the Kensington section of Philadelphia which has become a hub for heroin use on January 24, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Over 900 people died in 2016 in Philadelphia from opioid overdoses, a 30 percent increase from 2015. As the epidemic shows no signs of weakening, the number of fatalities this year is expected to surpass last year's numbers. Heroin use has doubled across the country since 2010, according to the DEA, part of an epidemic. Officials from Philadelphia recently announced that they want to become the first U.S. city to allow supervised drug injection sites as a way to combat the opioid epidemic. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Contrary to popular belief, Americans are not living longer. In large part due to alcohol and drug abuse, as well as suicide, life expectancy has dropped in the US for the second year in a row. This trend is particularly alarming, because life expectancy rates have been rising in many other developed countries over the last several decades. Clearly, something is amiss in American society.

As will surprise no one America is in the midst of a booming opioid epidemic. According to a report by CBS, overdose is now the leading cause of death for American adults under 50 years old. This sobering statistic demonstrates the brutality of addiction, particularly within the United States.

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Dr. Anne Schuchat, deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), holds up a paper with statistics about the opioid crisis as she testifies during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing concerning federal efforts to combat the opioid crisis, October 25, 2017 in Washington, DC. Lawmakers on the committee threatened to subpoena information from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) regarding their delayed responses about drug distributors that poured in millions of pain pills into West Virginia. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A West Virginia town has become a hotbed of substance abuse and a significant example of the growing opioid epidemic. According to Beth Mole of Ars Technica, “Drug companies hosed tiny towns in West Virginia with a deluge of addictive and deadly opioid pills over the last decade, according to an ongoing investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.”

She goes on to write that “drug companies collectively poured 20.8 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills into the small city of Williamson, West Virginia, between 2006 and 2016, according to a set of letters the committee released Tuesday. Williamson’s population was just 3,191 in 2010, according to US Census data.”

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No Pain No Game (Sergey Galyonkin, CC BY-SA)

In October, President Trump finally declared what much of the country has known for a long time: the opioid crisis is a public health emergency. Yet while nearly 100 Americans die from opioid-related deaths each day, chronic pain continues to vex more than 25 million Americans. But the fast-developing world of virtual reality (VR) technology is providing relief to patients in clinical trials, hospitals, and soon in our own homes. This growing industry of pain-relieving VR may be at least part of the solution to the opioid epidemic—without the addictive, potentially fatal side effects.

How VR Reduces Pain

The first successful experiments using VR to control pain, conducted in 1996, focused on the acute pain of burn victims. Particularly during bandage changes, where the patients were not at rest, opioids such as morphine failed to control the intense pain. By the early 2000s, cognitive psychologists Hunter Hoffman and Dave Patterson, of the University of Washington in Seattle, had developed a VR computer game called SnowWorld to help patients ignore pain signals while enjoying the intriguing game scenarios. They placed patients inside a $90,000 unit with an eight-pound helmet linked to a refrigerator-sized computer to play the game.

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A serious young girl backlit by sunlight in a dark room. (Getty)

If it feels like opioid abuse has reached crisis levels in your city or community, you’re not wrong: America’s current rate of opioid addiction is now the biggest drug epidemic in national history. Nearly 500,000 people have died from overdoses in the past 15 years, mostly from heroin and related substances — prompting the president to declare opioid addiction a national public health emergency in October.

It’s no secret drug abuse strains state and community resources such as hospitals, clinics and jails, but one trend should have Americans particularly disturbed: The growing number of kids in foster care.

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