Figures gathered by a different U.N. agency, the International Narcotics Control Board, make clear that “citizens of rich nations suffer less.” To put it starkly, the use of morphine per person in the United States is 17,000 times higher than per person usage in Sierra Leone. Doctors in Africa paint a grim picture of patients hanging themselves or throwing themselves in front of trucks as an alternative to life without pain relief. The U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, and Australia together account for roughly 80 per cent of the world’s medicinal morphine use. Other countries, particularly the poor and undeveloped nations, scramble for what’s left.
The ironies fly thick and fast: In many cases, pain relief is the one thing doctors can offer their patients, and the one thing they withhold. Studies show that 70 per cent of patients present with painful conditions. Typically, non-addicted patients take morphine therapeutically for pain at doses in the 5 to 10 mg. range. But experienced morphine addicts regularly take several hundred milligrams a day—a huge difference.
As for concerns about addiction, recent evidence for the heritability of opiate addiction looks strong. “Harvard did some really superb studies using a huge cohort of military recruits in the U.S. Army,” according to Mary Jeanne Kreek, a specialist in opiate addiction at Rockefeller University in New York. “Heroin addiction has even a larger heritable component than any of the other addictions, so that up to 54% of heroin addictions seem to be on a genetic basis or a heritable basis.”
Opium, the main ingredient, is in abundant supply worldwide, and is relatively cheap to grow. The problem, as David E. Joranson of the University of Wisconsin’s Pain and Policy Studies Group told the Times, is the “intense fear of addiction, which is often misunderstood. Pain relief hasn’t been given as much attention as the war on drugs has.”