Who is Responsible for Today’s Opioid Epidemic?


The Health Resources and Services Administration describes that the United States is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic. According to the agency, “More than 130 people a day die from opioid-related drug overdoses.” The epidemic has grown worse through the COVID-19 pandemic and related recovery efforts, with drug overdose deaths increasing by 30.6% in a 12-month timespan during the pandemic (State Health Access Data Assistance Center).

In studying the historical origins of the current epidemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes “three waves of opioid overdose,” which include separate historical increases in the use of prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic fentanyl, among other drugs. Even as the CDC monitors trends, advances research, and increases public awareness alongside other efforts taken by the Department of Justice, the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection, and the Department Homeland Security, the epidemic continues to worsen.

Some blame the current epidemic on a lack of effective governmental oversight, including lax controls at the U.S/Mexico border and a history of isolated responses. Others blame the Sackler Family and Purdue Pharmaceuticals, local pharmacists and doctors, and other companies. While others blame drug traffickers and dealers, who take part in a transnational illicit drug network.

This deliberation includes eleven video clips, two articles, and several educational activities to guide students through a review of the history of the United States’ opioid epidemic and contemporary interpretations regarding who is responsible. After a careful review of multiple perspectives, students will determine who is responsible for the current opioid epidemic and be presented with several optional extensions to affect change in their country.

Objectives and Outcomes

  • Students will be able to describe key vocabulary terms and concepts associated with the debate surrounding the causes of the current opioid epidemic.

  • Students will be able to identify and explain aspects of the debate regarding the causes of the current opioid epidemic, including those of governmental policy and oversight, the pharmaceutical industry and other companies, and drug trafficking and transnational trade.

  • Students will be able to evaluate arguments relating to the causes of the current opioid epidemic and formulate an opinion on this question.