When bitcoin was invented almost 10 years ago, it was favored by tech-lovers who longed for a market-free, anonymous form of currency. Since then, it’s become the tender of choice for those who buy and sell products on the dark web. Even though all bitcoin transactions are recorded in a public ledger, bitcoin ownership remains anonymous and exists only in the virtual realm. Cryptocurrencies like these have allowed criminals to conduct their business on the internet, which authorities say has directly contributed to the growing opioid crisis. But now, Intel and the pharmaceutical industry are hoping they can use cryptocurrency transactions to reverse the negative affects by improving drug purchase tracing capabilities with help from blockchain.
Authorities report there’s a new generation of criminals who choose to buy and sell illicit drugs online and cover their tracks using payment methods like bitcoin. Officials say that the internet is now the main way fentanyl makes its way into the United States. While there are plenty of legal ways to obtain opioids — doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions for them in 2012 — it’s a whole lot easier to order them online and have them delivered right to your door without jumping through all the hoops.
The sheer accessibility to opioids, including prescription painkillers like oxycodone, has had significant ramifications for Americans. Not only do four in five new heroin users start out by misusing prescription painkillers, but the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that more than 115 people in the U.S. die every day after overdosing on opioids. From July 2016 to September 2017, opioid overdoses increased by 30% in 52 areas within 45 states. Fentanyl, a particularly dangerous opioid that’s gotten a lot of attention as late, caused nearly 20,000 fatal overdoses in 2016, highlighting how serious the current drug epidemic has become in just a couple of years.
But tech giant Intel wants to try to turn things around. The company is partnering with several healthcare companies to use blockchain technology to actually trace drugs and, with any luck, curb the epidemic. They want to use blockchain to find where drugs slip through the supply chain cracks and even flag “double doctoring” — a practice used by addicted patients to use multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors (or the same prescription to fill multiple orders) to obtain more drugs. Eventually, the companies hope to encourage all manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and their suppliers to migrate to blockchain, which would allow U.S. government agencies (like the FDA) to monitor sales.
David Houlding, the director of healthcare privacy and security at Intel Health and Life Sciences, told Bloomberg: “It will vastly reduce the opioid epidemic. I would not say this will eliminate the opioid problem, but this will help.”
The experiment will be tested this spring when Johnson and Johnson, McKesson Corp., and other companies will enter simulated data into blockchain digital ledgers. This approach will test how easy it is to track medications as they make their way from manufacturer to customer. If the project is successful, it may go live as early as the end of the year.
Of course, these efforts would not cease the opioid crisis. Plenty of patients choose to get their drugs the old fashioned way — and some systems used by doctors are able to be edited, which makes it hard to ensure total accuracy and coordination between healthcare providers. But it’s certainly a good place to start. After all, experts say, something has to be done.