On November 2 the Food and Drug Administration announced the approval of Dsuvia, a sublingual tablet containing the powerful fentanyl analog, sufentanil. Sufentanil has been used for years in the hospital setting, primarily in intravenous form for anesthesia. It is roughly 5 to 10 times more potent than fentanyl, and thus has a significant overdose potential. The FDA reached this decision following a 10–3 vote in favor of the drug’s approval by the Anesthetic and Analgesia Drug Products Advisory Committee (AADPAC), based on data from multicenter trials. It was not approved for outpatient use, but for use only in medically supervised settings, and may be of particular benefit to military health care practitioners.
FDA Commissioner Gottlieb’s announcement stated:
Dsuvia, which was previously approved by the European Medicines Agency in July under the brand name Dzuveo, has some unique features in that the drug is delivered in a stable form that makes it ideally suited for certain special circumstances where patients may not be able to swallow oral medication, and where access to intravenous pain relief is not possible. This includes potential uses on the battlefield. For this reason, the Department of Defense (DoD) worked closely with the sponsor on the development of this new medicine. This opioid formulation, along with Dsuvia’s unique delivery device, was a priority medical product for the Pentagon because it fills a specific and important, but limited, unmet medical need in treating our nation’s soldiers on the battlefield. The involvement and needs of the DoD in treating soldiers on the battlefield were discussed by the advisory committee.
The announcement was met with criticism from numerous quarters, including Anesthesiology Professor Raeford Brown of the University of Kentucky, who chairs the AADPAC, Senator Edward Markey (D‑MA), and the advocacy group Public Citizen. They questioned the need for the development of a new and potent opioid in the presence of the opioid overdose crisis, and raised concerns about the potential for the drug’s diversion to the black market for non‐medical users. These objections were trumpeted by the media.
The concerns raised by critics are unfounded. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, most fentanyl and fentanyl analogs found on the streets are in an illicit powdered form, made in labs overseas and smuggled into the US via the mail, Fedex, and UPS, or using Mexican drug cartel infrastructure. While much of it is mixed in with heroin or cocaine, many dealers own pill presses and press the powder into counterfeit oxycodone or hydrocodone pills that are sold to unsuspecting nonmedical users. That’s how the artist known as Prince died. He liked to use Vicodin (hydrocodone) recreationally. Records show he never obtained any prescriptions from doctors. His dealer sold him what was believed to be Vicodin but was actually counterfeit and made from fentanyl, which caused his overdose death.
Recrudescent opiophobia now evokes positions held at the zenith of President Nixon’s war on drugs. The fact remains that opioids can be highly effective in treating pain, especially in the acute setting. Hysteria‐driven policy should not stifle innovations in this or other forms of pain management.
Commissioner Gottlieb also stated in the FDA announcement:
We owe an answer to patients with medical pain, and the innovators who take risks to develop products to help address their needs. We owe it to Americans who want the FDA to do our part to help end one of the biggest addiction crises of modern times, while we carefully balance these grave risks against patient needs.
Commissioner Gottlieb made the right call here.
Speaking last week at a National Opioid Summit in Washington, DC, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reported opioid prescriptions fell another 12 percent during the first eight months of 2018, saying ‘We now have the lowest opioid prescription rates in 18 years.” Some of this was no doubt the result of the chilling effect that prescription surveillance boards have had on the prescribing patterns of physicians. For example, Sessions announced the Trump administration has charged 226 doctors and 221 medical personnel with “opioid‐related crimes,” and this has not gone unnoticed by health care practitioners.
Sessions also pledged to meet the goal of a 44 percent overall reduction in the production of opioids permitted by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA, which sets quotas on the production of opioids by US manufacturers, began the process with a 25 percent reduction in 2016 and another 20 percent reduction in 2017. This has led to shortages of injectable opioids in many hospitals, affecting the delivery and quality of care.
Meanwhile, the DEA reported in a Joint Intelligence Report that overdoses in Pennsylvania continued to rise, with 5,456 fatal overdoses in 2017, a 65 percent increase over 2015. Only 20 percent of those overdoses involved prescription opioids, with most deaths involving multiple drugs in combination—usually fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, as well as counterfeit prescription opioids (usually made of illicit fentanyl and heroin pressed into pills). The report stated heroin and fentanyl were found in 97 percent of Pennsylvania’s counties.
Prescription opioids were also responsible for just 20 percent of the fatal overdoses in Massachusetts in 2015, where researchers at Boston University reported last week in the American Journal of Public Health that Opioid Use Disorder among people over age 11 grew to 4.6 percent of the population that year.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reports a modest tapering in the fatal overdose rate, from 2,154 in 2016 to 2,069 in 2017, and estimates up to 1,053 have occurred in the first 6 months of 2018. During the first quarter of 2018, 90 percent of those deaths involved fentanyl, 43 percent involved cocaine, 34 percent involved heroin, and 20 percent involved prescription opioids. Fentanyl is responsible for sustaining the death rate in Massachusetts at near‐record levels.
What jumps out of these numbers is the fact that efforts to get doctors to curtail their treatment of pain have not meaningfully reduced the overdose rate. They have just caused non‐medical users of opioids to migrate over to more dangerous heroin and fentanyl. Fentanyl and heroin—not prescription opioids—are now the principal drugs behind the gruesome mortality statistics.
Addressing the overdose crisis by focusing on doctors treating patients aims at the wrong target. And patients are suffering—often desperately— in the process. The cause has been drug prohibition from the get‐go. If policymakers can’t muster the courage to admit and address that fact, then they should at least put the lion’s share of reform efforts into mitigating the harmful unintended consequences of prohibition. I wrote about this here.
Earlier this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary estimates of the opioid overdose rate for 2017. The total overdose rate rose to approximately 72,000, up from a total overdose rate of 63,600 in 2016, an increase of roughly 10 percent. The total overdose rate includes deaths from numerous drugs in addition to opioids, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepines. The opioid‐related overdose rate increased as well, from a little over 42,000 in 2016 to over 49,000 in 2017. This increase occurred despite a 4 percent drop in heroin overdoses and a 2 percent drop in overdoses due to prescription opioids. A 37 percent increase in illicit fentanyl‐related overdoses explains the jump in the death rate.
All of this is happening while the prescribing of high‐dose opioids continues to decrease dramatically—over 41 percent between 2010 and 2015, with a recent report showing a further decrease of 16 percent during the year 2017.
This is more evidence, if any more was needed, that the opioid overdose problem is the result of non‐medical users accessing drugs in the black market that results from drug prohibition. Whether these users’ drug of choice is OxyContin or heroin, the majority have obtained their drugs through the black market, not from a doctor. A 2007 study by Carise, et al in the American Journal of Psychiatry looked at over 27,000 OxyContin addicts entering rehab between the years 2001 and 2004 and found that 78 percent never obtained a prescription from a doctor but got the drugs through a friend, family member, or a dealer. 86 percent said they took the drug to “get high” or get a “buzz.” 78 percent also had a prior history of treatment for substance abuse disorder. And the National Survey on Drug Use and Health has repeatedly found roughly three‐quarters of non‐medical users get their drugs from dealers, family, or friends as opposed to a doctor.
Media and policymakers can’t disabuse themselves of the false narrative that the opioid problem is the product of doctors hooking their patients on opioids when they treat their pain, despite the large number of studies showing–and the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse stating—that opioids used in the medical setting have a very low addiction rate. Therefore, most opioid policy has focused on decreasing the number of pills prescribed. Reducing the number of pills also aims at making less available for “diversion” into the black market. This is making many patients suffer from undertreatment of their pain and causes some, in desperation, to turn to the black market or to suicide.
Since 2010, opioid policy has also promoted the development of abuse‐deterrent formulations of opioids—opioids that cannot be crushed and snorted or dissolved and injected. As a just‐released Cato Research Brief as well as my Policy Analysis from earlier this year have shown, rendering prescription opioids unsuitable for abuse has only served to make non‐medical users migrate over to more dangerous heroin, which is increasingly laced with illicit fentanyl.
This is how things always work with prohibition. Fighting a war on drugs is like playing a game of “Whac‐a‐mole.” The war is never‐ending and the deaths keep mounting.
The so‐called “opioid crisis” has morphed into a “fentanyl and heroin crisis.” But it has been an unintended consequence of prohibition from the get go.
I have written here and here about how patients have become the civilian casualties of the misguided policies addressing the opioid (now predominantly fentanyl and heroin) crisis. The policies have dramatically reduced opioid prescribing by health care practitioners and have pressured them into rapidly tapering or cutting off their chronic pain patients from the opioids that have allowed them to function. More and more reports appear in the press about patients becoming desperate because their doctors, often fearing they may lose their livelihoods if they are seen as “outliers” by surveillance agencies, under-treat their pain or abruptly cut them off of their pain treatment regimen.
A story in the July 23, Louisville (KY) Courier Journal illustrates the harm this is causing in Kentucky. “Doctors say the federal raids on medical clinics lead to unintended consequences — patients thrust into painful withdrawals and left vulnerable to suicide or dangerous street drugs,” states the article. Dr. Wayne Tuckerson, President of the Greater Louisville Medical Society, said, “[When investigators] go in with a sledgehammer and shut down a practice without consulting community physicians, suddenly we have patients thrown loose.” He went on to say, "Docs are very much afraid when it comes to writing pain medications…We don’t want patients to become addicted. And we don’t want to have our licenses — and therefore our livelihoods — at stake." And if pharmacists in the area learn of a police raid or investigation of a medical practice—regardless of the outcome of that investigation—many of them refuse to fill legal prescriptions presented by patients of those practitioners.
Last week Oregon regulators announced plans for a “forced taper” of chronic pain patients in its Medicaid system. This contradicts and is much more draconian than the recommendations of the 2016 guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which in turn have been criticized as not evidence-based. The Oregon Health Evidence Review Commission announced:
The changes include a forced taper for all chronic pain patients on opioids (within a year), no exceptions. Opioids will be replaced with alternative treatments (cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), acupuncture, mindfulness, pain acceptance, aqua therapy, chiropractic adjustments, and treatment with non-opioid medications, such as NSAIDS, Acetaminophen).
This proposal has sparked an outcry from patients and patient advocacy groups in Oregon. While this policy proposal only applies to Medicaid patients, they fear it will soon become the standard adopted by all third-party payers in the state.
University of Alabama Medical School Associate Professor Stefan Kertesz, an addiction medicine specialist at the Birmingham VA Medical Center, tweeted in reaction to this proposal:
I cannot imagine a more violent rejection of the CDC Guideline on Prescribing Opioids of 2016 than the plan current before Oregon Medicaid : forced taper to 0 mg of all opioid receiving pain patients.
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.
A May 22 story in Bloomberg News describes with painstaking detail the underground pipeline through which the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl floods the US market. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, while the Mexican cartel plays a role by using its well‐established heroin and methamphetamine distribution networks, most of the fentanyl comes in to the US from China.
The raw materials to make the synthetic opioids are cheap and they can be manufactured rather quickly in small laboratories. The laboratories are constantly creating new variations so as to skirt restrictions the Chinese government places on existing fentanyl analogs. Online distributors throughout China sell these products, making their transactions over the “dark web,” often paid with cryptocurrency, and frequently ship the products to the US via the US Postal Service or United Parcel Service.
Many dealers purchase and use pill presses to make counterfeit OxyContin or Vicodin pills and trick non‐medical users into thinking they are buying the real thing. That’s how Prince died. He preferred to abuse Vicodin (hydrocodone). Records show he never got prescriptions from doctors. He died from ingesting counterfeit Vicodin pills he obtained on the black market that turned out to be fentanyl.
The DEA reports this is the way most fentanyl makes its way to the street. As we doctors know, most pharmaceutical‐grade fentanyl made for medical use does not get diverted on to the streets. In fact, the forms usually prescribed to outpatients—skin patches, lozenges, buccal films—are not very suitable for non‐medical use.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fentanyl was responsible for 26,000 overdose deaths in 2017. But already in 2016 fentanyl accounted for more than 20,000 of the roughly 64,000 total overdose deaths (which include cocaine, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepines). Heroin came in second with more than 15,000. In fact, for a few years now, fentanyl and heroin have accounted for the majority of overdose deaths. And a great majority of those deaths had multiple other drugs on board. In New York City in 2016, three‐quarters of overdose deaths were from fentanyl and heroin, and 97 percent of overdoses had multiple other drugs on board—46 percent of the time it was cocaine.
Fentanyl overdoses in the US have been rising at a rate of 88 percent per year since 2013. Heroin overdoses have been increasing at a rate of 19 percent per year since 2014 after climbing 33 percent per year from 2010–2014. Meanwhile, overdose deaths from prescription‐type opioids have been increasing at a stable rate of 3 percent per year since 2009.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports non‐medical use of prescription opioids peaked in 2012, and total prescription opioid use in 2014 was lower than in 2012. And the survey repeatedly reports less than 25 percent of non‐medical users see a doctor in order to get a prescription. Three‐quarters obtain their drugs through a friend or family member or a drug dealer.
Meanwhile, while all this is going on, policymakers in Washington and in state capitals seem intent on getting the opioid prescription rate down further. State‐based prescription drug monitoring programs have succeeded in reducing the prescription of high‐dose opioids by over 41 percent since 2010, the peak year of opioid prescribing. And opioid production quotas, set by the DEA, were reduced 25 percent last year and another 20 percent this year, generating acute shortages of injectables in hospitals across the nation that is harming patients.
With all the evidence that the majority of non‐medical users are not patients—with all the evidence that prescription rates have come down while overdose rates keep going up—with all the evidence of fentanyl and heroin flooding the black market and causing those deaths, it is time for policymakers to disabuse themselves of the false narrative to which they’ve been stubbornly clinging. This narrative blames the overdose problem on doctors prescribing pain relievers to their patients. The overdose problem has always been primarily caused by non‐medical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market created by drug prohibition. And our current restrictive policy is only driving up the death rate by pushing these users to more dangerous drugs while making patients suffer in the process.
What’s the definition of insanity?
In a May 14 blog post, Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb expressed concern about the effect the nation’s restrictive policy towards the manufacture and prescription of opioids is having on patients with chronic pain conditions. This is one of the first signs that someone in the administration has taken note of the unintended consequences of this misguided policy—a policy that is based upon the false narrative that the overdose crisis is primarily the result of doctors prescribing opioids to patients in pain.
In response to a wide range of public input solicited by the FDA beginning in September 2017, Commissioner Gottlieb stated:
We’ve heard the concerns expressed by these individuals about having continued access to necessary pain medication, the fear of being stigmatized as an addict, challenges in finding health care professionals willing to work with or even prescribe opioids, and sadly, for some patients, increased thoughts of or actual suicide because crushing pain was resulting in a loss of quality of life.
Pointing out that, “In some medical circumstances, opioids are the only drugs that work for some patients,” Dr. Gottlieb announced that a public meeting will be held on July 9 on “Patient‐Focused Drug Development for Chronic Pain,” and invited pain patients to offer their perspectives.
Hinting at his dissatisfaction with the 2016 one‐size‐fits‐all opioid prescription guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have greatly influenced state and federal opioid policymakers, he signaled that the FDA is considering proposing its own set of guidelines. Unlike the CDC guidelines, which are not evidence‐based and were never intended to be prescriptive, Gottlieb stated:
In short, having sound, evidence‐based information to inform prescribing can help ensure that patients aren’t over prescribed these drugs; while at the same time also making sure that patients with appropriate needs for short and, in some cases, longer‐term use of these medicines are not denied access to necessary treatments. We will take the first steps toward developing this framework in the coming months, with the goal of providing standards that could inform the development of evidence based guidelines.
Opioid prescriptions peaked in 2010, and high‐dose opioid prescriptions are down more than 41 percent since then. Yet the overdose rate continues to climb year after year, with fentanyl and heroin being the major culprits while overdoses from prescription type opioids have stabilized and have even slightly receded. The overdose problem was never really primarily caused by doctors treating patients in pain. It has always been principally due to nonmedical users accessing opioids in the illegal market. And as prescription opioids have become less accessible to them, they are migrating over to more dangerous drugs. The present policy towards the problem is making patients suffer while, at the same time, driving up the death rate.
This is the first indication that a significant member of the Administration might be coming to that realization.