With more than 52,000 overdose deaths in 2015, the opioid epidemic the worst drug crisis we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

But how did we get here?

That’s the question that’s on everyone’s mind. And the answer may surprise you.

We’ve come a long way in reducing the stigma of addiction, but we still have a long way to go.

When you think of addiction, it’s easy to blame the addict. It’s easy to think that homeless person with track marks up his arms did this to himself. He’s not like you.

But he might be more like you than you realize.

The scary part about addiction is that it often starts with prescription medications.

It’s not the addict’s fault

Blaming the addict isn’t just counterproductive; it’s incorrect. We’ve learned a lot about addiction in the past decade and here’s what we know for sure: Addiction is a disease. It has been classified as such by various organizations, including the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Blaming an addict for addiction is like blaming a diabetic for diabetes.

Regardless of how someone started using an addictive substance, addiction is caused by chemical changes that take place in the brain. When someone uses drugs, the brain gets used to the artificial supply of dopamine. The dopamine surge that comes from using opioid drugs is much stronger and more enticing than any you may find from natural pleasures.

Before long, the brain begins to crave the drug. You never know when addiction will take hold, but once it does, you physically need the drugs to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay. Addicts have lost control to the disease of addiction.

The opioid epidemic came from good intentions

Cancer specialists especially wanted to help their patients deal with pain, so they proposed opioid use. Government agencies got on board, and drug companies were all for the boost in business.

We probably should have known better.

We’ve been through this before with opium. By the late 1800s, opium was so common that heroin was sold over-the-counter by Bayer. It wasn’t long before people began crushing and snorting pills.

Heroin addiction became such a widespread problem, and Congress passed an act that made opioids only available by prescription. This act wasn’t meant to limit opioids for those who needed them; it was meant to reduce the recreational use of opioids.

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In the 20th century, doctors did their best to find a balance between helping patients manage pain while avoiding addiction.

In an effort to avoid addiction, doctors rarely prescribed opioids for chronic pain. Instead, they relied on non-addictive pain relievers that were also less effective.

One letter started it all

In the 70s, Boston Medical Center researchers conducted a controlled study that showed only four patients with symptoms of addiction out of 11,822 patients who received narcotics. Dr. Hershel Jick, author of the study then wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine with the findings.

Jick later told NPR that the letter was inconsequential at the time. The study was on the safety of narcotics in a controlled hospital environment for a short period of time, but years later, its findings were misrepresented by drug companies to assert the general safety of opioid painkillers.

Doctors began prescribing opioids for all kinds of pain relief, including chronic pain. It wasn’t long before people became addicted.

From opioids to heroin

Opioids are a synthetic form of opium, so they work similarly in the body. When a person becomes addicted to prescription opioids, they will typically start “doctor shopping” to find new doctors that will fill their prescriptions. Once they’ve exhausted all legal options, opioid addicts typically turn to heroin, which is relatively easy to score on the street.

Now, let’s think again about that homeless drug addict with track marks up his arm. His path to addiction may have been more innocent than you think. It’s possible that he got caught up in a wave of addiction because he just wanted to feel better.

Anyone can become a victim of addiction, but education is the best tool for keeping safe.

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