In Articles, Personal Resources

Stories surrounding the opioid epidemic fill the news. It seems like every day someone new dies of a heroin overdose and fentanyl continues to rise in popularity. As a substance abuse treatment center in PA, we have seen the number of people entering treatment for opioid abuse rise steadily since our founding over 40 years ago. It is one of the biggest public health emergencies ever to strike our country, but how did it all begin?

America’s Opioid Epidemic Timeline

The opioid crisis didn’t just happen overnight. At Clearbrook Treatment Centers, we are sharing a brief history of the opioid epidemic in the United States so you can better understand how and why so many people have become addicted to these drugs.

1800s & Earlier

Unbeknownst to most people, this isn’t America’s first opioid crisis. The history of the opioid crisis dates all the way back to before the country was even founded. Just like a multitude of other crops, opium was likely brought over to the New World early on, but it was not until the 1800s that the drug gained popularity in various commercial products because people were not aware of its dangers. In particular, wounded soldiers from the civil war became addicted to these painkillers and lead to the country’s first spike in opioid abuse.1 Use of these products occurred for many years after and opioid addiction treatment didn’t exist yet.

1914 to 1986

In 1914, the United States government passed the Harrison Narcotic Control Act that taxed the production and distribution of products with opioids in them.2 As a result, attitudes toward these drugs changed drastically over the next several decades. People began to fear opioids for their addictive qualities and many historians believe the painkillers were under prescribed for those in need.3

1986 to 2000s

In 1986, the World Health Organization discussed the underwhelming use of these drugs for cancer pain and post-surgery treatment with their Cancer Pain Monograph.3 This spurred the use of opioid drugs to treat pain outside of cancer treatment and by the 1990s, prescription opioids were being used at a much higher rate than ever before. Pharmaceutical companies also began to push the use of these drugs and medical staff came to rely on them for their patients.

2000s to 2013

After pushing the use of prescription painkillers for several years, some concern over this heavy use started to arise. Studies on opioid overdose problems came to light.3 It was becoming more and more apparent that opioids had a high risk of overdose. There was also a rapid increase in the number of heroin overdose deaths beginning in 2010.4 Because many people were not aware of the highly addictive nature of these drugs, they were not getting the prescription drug addiction treatment they needed and instead turned to heroin.

2013 to Present Day

America’s opioid crisis history took another turn for the worse with the rise of synthetic opioids like fentanyl.4 More potent than prescription opioids and heroin, synthetic opioids have a high risk of overdose. The number of drug overdose deaths from synthetic opioids began to increase drastically starting in 2013 to the point that they have now far surpassed heroin and prescription opioids.4 In the past few years, some areas have started to see slow improvement in the opioid crisis, but these numbers vary dramatically depending on location. As a whole, the United States still has a long way to go before there is a drastic improvement. The coronavirus pandemic may also prove to be a setback in progress.

While the history of the opioid epidemic in America is much more complicated than this, it is a start. If you or someone you know has become dependent on these drugs, do not wait to get help. Call us today at 570-536-9621.


  1. AP News – ‘The laudanum evil’: Maryland’s 19th century opiate epidemic
  2. NAABT – Harrison Narcotic Control Act of 1914
  3. NCBI – A Brief History of the Opioid Epidemic and Strategies for Pain Medicine
  4. CDC – Understanding the Epidemic
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