By Jean Reynolds

Your police training will include information about the recent explosion in addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the US is experiencing the worst drug epidemic in its history, with demographics much broader than it has seen in the past. Many middle-aged white rural and suburban Americans are becoming addicted and dying of overdoses.

Because addiction is a major criminal justice issue, your police training is likely to include information about a new problem the US is facing: widespread addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this is the worst drug epidemic in US history.

Deaths from overdoses are reaching levels similar to the HIV epidemic at its peak and are climbing at a much faster pace than other causes of death. In 2014 the total was 47,055 people, or the equivalent of about 125 Americans every day.

Demographics provided by the CDC are frightening. In the past, addiction was confined largely to inner city, low-income residents. But current statistics show that mainstream white rural and suburban Americans are becoming addicted at every income level.

Some of the largest concentrations of overdose deaths are in rural areas in Appalachia and the Southwest. One problem is that rural areas often lack mental health services and rehabilitation centers; another is that heroin is cheap and widely available.

The highest overdose death rate is, surprisingly, among persons 45 to 54 years of age. Often they start taking prescription drugs for chronic pain on the advice of a physician. Unlike younger addicts, who use drugs primarily for recreation, older users can obtain unlimited quantities of opioids legally from physicians, despite the dangers.

Experts say that a variety of factors have led to the addiction epidemic. Some medical professionals lack training in the powerful opioids used to manage pain. These opioids should be reserved for short-term use after surgery because there are better and safer ways to manage chronic pain—but often doctors are unaware of the risks.

Government officials and medical experts are partnering to find strategies for dealing with the addiction crisis. Addiction experts say that it’s important to recognize that addiction is a disease, not a character flaw, and they recommend treatment rather than incarceration. Methadone or other medications can often reverse the brain processes that promote addiction. But funding is a recurring problem because patients usually require more than the seven-day maximum provided by most insurance companies.

Experts are exploring a number of avenues for responding to the addiction crisis. President Obama is establishing a Rural Council to ensure that more treatment options are available outside of urban centers. Expansion of Medicaid services may also provide additional treatment options.