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America's Heroin Epidemic

One in Three Americans Took Prescription Opioid Painkillers in 2015, Survey Says

Opioid Abuse: Epidemic Levels in U.S., Study Finds 1:47

How many Americans are using prescription opioid painkillers? About one in three.

That's the stunning number in a new survey released Monday from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which calculated that a whopping 91.8 million Americans used drugs like OxyContin or Vicodin in 2015.

And nearly five percent of the adults surveyed told researchers they took these drugs without their doctor’s permission, the study reported.

They didn’t get their meds from some seedy drug dealer, either.

“The most commonly reported sources were friends and relatives for free,” the study reported. “Or a physician.”

Buffalo's Opioid Court Hopes to Show New Path in Addiction Fight 2:00

The NIDA study was released on the same day that the presidential opioid commission, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, released its first report and recommendations for tackling an opioid plague that killed more than 15,000 people in 2015, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study urged President Donald Trump to "declare a national emergency" and noted that "America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks."

“As access to prescription opioids tightens, consumers increasingly are turning to dangerous street opioids, heroin, fentanyl alone or combined, and mingled with cocaine or other drugs," the commission stated in an interim report to Trump.

NIDA said the treatment of pain is at the root of the problem.

“Our results are consistent with findings that pain is a poorly addressed clinical and public health problem in the United States and that it may be a key part of the pathway to misuse or addiction,” the group stated in the study.

NIDA’s recommendations included "better prevention and treatment of the underlying disorders are necessary to decrease pain and the morbidity and mortality associated with opioid misuse,” the study said.

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“Simply restricting access to opioids without offering alternative pain treatments may have limited efficacy in reducing prescription opioid abuse.”

It could also “lead people to seek prescription opioids outside the health system or to use nonprescription opioids such as heroin or illicitly made fentanyl, which could increase health, misuse, and overdose risks.”

Trump launched the commission on March 29 to tackle a drug problem that kills an estimated 78 Americans per day.

Opioids are still overprescribed by doctors, CDC says 2:52

In their report, the Christie-led commission made several recommendations. Among other things, they suggested expanding treatment facilities across the country, educating doctors about the proper way to prescribe pain medication, equipping all police officers with the anti-overdose remedy naloxone, developing new fentanyl detection sensors, and improving data-sharing among law enforcement agencies.

"Since 1999, the number of opioid overdoses in America have quadrupled," the presidential commission stated. "Not coincidentally, in that same period, the amount of prescription opioids in America have quadrupled as well."

The commission’s first report on the federal response to the opioid crisis was supposed to be released 90 days after Trump launched it in March. But it was delayed twice while the Republican-led House and then the Senate tried and failed to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Related: How One Man’s Mutant DNA May Help End the Deadly Opioid Crisis

Critics said the Obamacare repeal plans the GOP was pushing would have gutted existing programs that have been helping legions of substance abusers kick their habits.

Meanwhile, the Democrats accused Christie and the Trump administration of "dragging its feet" on the issue.

“There’s money available,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday. “The commission is supposed to put (forward) the best ways to spend that, and they haven’t done that."

Investigating The Opioid Epidemic From Its 'Epicenter' 4:34

Christie insisted the delays were necessary because they got far more input from the public than they had expected.

Criminal justice professor Brian Levin said the feeling among many academics is that Trump’s commission is "window dressing."

“Like many initiatives coming out of the administration, it’s hampered by the chaos around management,” Levin, of the California State University San Bernardino, told NBC News. “Moreover, there seems to be a concentration on rhetoric and law enforcement responses at a time when resources from health and addiction are on the chopping block.”

Levin, a former New York City police officer who walked a beat in Manhattan at the height of the crack epidemic, said arresting more people won’t end the opioid crisis.

“The research indicates that enforcement alone, absent a systematic medical and counseling response, is due to fail,” Levin said.