On a recent Saturday, photographer Nan Goldin and a band of roughly 100 fellow activists threw pill bottles into the reflecting pool near the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The space was funded by the Sacklers, the family that owns the drug Oxycontin's manufacturer Purdue Pharma, and the group was trying to call the clan to account for the opioid overdose catastrophe, a crisis spurred in part by aggressive marketing of that pill.
But the simultaneous rise of another potentially addictive and deadly prescription in America has received far less attention. Understanding why could shed light on the best way to manage both the opioid epidemic and this less-notorious one—and help prevent or at least mitigate future crises.
Between 1999 and 2016, as many Americans are now at least vaguely aware, the number of deaths from overdoses that included opioids quintupled. However, during roughly the same period, the number of OD deaths that involved benzodiazepines (a.k.a. "benzos") increased by a mind-boggling factor of nearly eight. In terms of the absolute number of deaths, opioids are more deadly, but it’s important to note that over 30 percent of opioid-overdose deaths are actually better described as fatal mixtures of the two classes of drugs.