A fair reading of Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s “Sunday Tweetorial” on the opioid overdose crisis leaves one simultaneously encouraged and frustrated.
First the encouraging news. The Commissioner admits that the so-called epidemic of opioid overdoses has “evolved” from one “mostly involving [diverted] prescription drugs to one that’s increasingly fueled by illicit substances being purchased online or off the street.” Most encouraging was this passage:
Even as lawful prescribing of opioids is declining, we’re seeing large increases in deaths from accidental drug overdoses as people turn to dangerous street drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Illegal online pharmacies, drug dealers and other bad actors are increasingly using the Internet to further their illicit distribution of opioids, where their risk of detection and the likelihood of repercussions are seen by criminals as significantly reduced.
As I have written here and here, the overdose crisis has always been primarily caused by non-medical users accessing drugs in a dangerous black market fueled by drug prohibition. As government interventions have made it more expensive and difficult to obtain diverted prescription opioids for non-medical use, the black market responds efficiently by filling the void with heroin, illicit fentanyl (there is a difference) and fentanyl analogs. So policies aimed at curtailing doctors’ prescriptions of opioids to patients only serve to drive up deaths from these more dangerous substitutes, while causing patients to suffer needlessly, sometimes desperately, in pain. Gottlieb validates my argument in his “tweetorial,” providing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Now for the frustrating news. Gottlieb next reminds us, “No controlled substances, including opioids, can be lawfully sold or offered to be sold online. There is no gray area here.” He provides evidence of rampant illegal internet marketing of prescription opioids, with 95 percent of internet pharmacy websites selling opioids without a prescription, often conducting transactions with cryptocurrencies, and shipping these orders “virtually anywhere in the US.” This is also the way illicit fentanyl is flooding the market.
Senate investigators found hundreds of transactions in more than 40 states, adding up to more than $750 million worth of fentanyl by its street value, from just six online sellers, resulting in several deaths. People are increasingly going online to illegally buy drugs like Vicodin or Percocet, but we believe they are often unknowingly getting pressed fentanyl – sometimes at lethal doses – given the lower cost and greater profitability of fentanyl for drug trafficking organizations
So, Gottlieb provides more evidence that fighting the war on drugs is worse than a costly exercise in futility—it is the major cause of opioid overdose deaths in the US. But does he suggest a reassessment of America’s longest war? Does he cite the success Portugal has had in saving lives while reducing substance abuse since it decriminalized all drugs in 2001? Does he propose redirecting opioid policies away from the number of pills doctors prescribe and toward an emphasis on harm reduction?
No. Instead the Commissioner announces that the FDA is “increasing enforcement activities to crack down on the illegal sale of opioids, particularly drugs sold online and typically shipped through the mail.” This week the FDA is convening “internet stakeholders” to help find new ways to crack down on illegally operated internet sites. In other words, more of the same.
Therein lies the frustration. It seems as if Dr. Gottlieb understands what is really behind the overdose crisis and that the present approach is misguided and is exacerbating matters. But he has yet to muster the will to challenge the prevailing narrative reverberating around policymakers. Hopefully, he will take that next step sometime soon. Until he does, don’t expect the death rate to slow.