International drugs: Opioids and the worldwide epidemic

Opioid users in North America

During a podcast, comedian and recovering addict Artie Lange described what he felt was needed to help with the opioid epidemic. Following 9 months of sobriety, the longest sober stint of his life, he said, “Intervention is needed to help these kids realize that they should not get into drugs like heroin. If I ever hear of someone wanting or thinking about experimenting with it, all I want to do is tackle them down and stop them.” Mr. Lange speaks from painful experience about the tremendously destructive nature of opioids, which have claimed the lives of people near and dear to him. He also acknowledges his sheer luck and bafflement as to why and how he’s still alive today.

The opioid crisis has reached all corners of the world, transcending socioeconomic and educational divides. The struggle is not singular to one state, country, or continent. For that reason, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) publishes its findings as the World Drug Report to detail how different countries are being affected by opioids.

An equal opportunity killer

Opioids are highly controversial because medically they can be an essential part of a pain management regimen related to an injury or chronic illness. However, these same drugs continue to contribute to a rising number of overdose deaths.

According to the World Drug Report, an estimated 68% of all overdose deaths in the U.S. are the result of opioid abuse. Broken down, those numbers equal a rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people with powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl at the root of a significant portion of the fatalities.

The United States is not alone; overdose-related deaths have risen in multiple countries. Of the 590 overdose deaths reported in Sweden, 90% were attributed to opioids. Canada also saw a 33% increase of opioid-related deaths between 2016 and 2017.

Rising non-medical opioid use

Opioid use infographic

The World Drug Report estimates 53 million people globally aged 15 to 64 used opioids at least once in the past year. Many people with substance use disorders started taking opioids to relieve pain, and turn to cheap and readily available alternatives when prescriptions expire.

Non-medical use of opioids in North America, Australia, and New Zealand ranks higher than the global average and the numbers are staggering.

  • North America sees at least 4% of the population aged 15 to 64 engaging in the non-medical use of opioids.
  • Australia and New Zealand are currently experiencing 3.3% of their adult population engaging in the non-medical use of opioids.

The aftermath continues

In addition to rising overdose deaths, the consequences of opioid use may affect public safety in general. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that prescription opioids are increasingly implicated as a contributing cause of fatal motor vehicle accidents. Drivers involved in these deadly accidents were nearly twice as likely to have taken prescription opiates as the non-initiators of crashes. These consequences are indiscriminate of time and place, and not even the workplace is immune from the impacts of opioid abuse.


The UNODC’s World Drug Report examines the impact of drug use on a global scale and provides striking insights into drug use on every continent. Credible research informs national and international policy and challenges us to be socially responsible in how we discuss opioids, addiction, and the reality of this continuing epidemic.

Next in this series on International Drugs, we will look at he origin of drugs around the globe. To learn about this series, read our introductory post.

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter to get the most up-to-date information from a leader in the drug testing industry.

If you are interested in learning more from our experts, visit our website or connect with us online.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a growing dependence on opioids, the following resources are available to help start the conversation about recovery or assistance.

For more information about drug testing connect with Quest Diagnostics online