Tag: methamphetamines

Senator Portman Presumes To Know How Many Days Of Pain Relief All 328 Million Americans Need

With clear evidence that restricting the number of prescriptions increased the death rate by driving non-medical users to heroin and fentanyl, the last thing one wants to hear about is a politician planning to double down on this deadly policy by calling for further prescription limits for patients in pain.

Yet Senator Robert Portman (R-OH) is proposing legislation that would impose a national 3-day limit on opioid prescriptions following surgeries. He will be kind enough to allow exceptions for people dealing with cancer, chronic pain, and “other serious matters”—whatever that means.

Government data show there is no correlation between the number of opioids prescribed and their non-medical use or the development of opioid use disorder. Overdose rates skyrocketed during the last 10 years while high-dose opioid prescriptions dropped more than 58 percent and total volume of dispensed opioids dropped more than 29 percent. Seventy-five percent of opioid-related deaths in 2017 involved fentanyl and heroin, and fewer than 10 percent involved prescription pain pills without also involving heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, tranquilizers, or alcohol. 

The senator has determined that, “After the second or third [postoperative] day, other pain medications work just as effective (sic).” In my more than 35 years as a practicing general surgeon, I usually find that my patients recovering from major surgery require prescription opioids to control their pain for more than 2 or 3 days. It is bad enough that many states have imposed 5 or 7 day limits on opioid prescriptions, forcing many patients in severe pain to make multiple trips to the doctors office for refills. Imposing a national 3-day limit lacks an understanding of the science. It would be an unfounded and callous government intrusion into the practice of medicine.

Senator Portman, like so many other politicians untrained in medicine or pharmacology, is guilty of misinterpreting and misapplying the guidelines on opioid prescribing published in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He must still believe that today’s non-medical users are yesterday’s pain patients, even though, as mentioned above, there is no evidence of any correlation between the two

He also seems to think there is a high risk of addiction in patients prescribed opioids for acute post-surgical pain. Yet a well-publicized study in the medical journal BMJ by researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins looked at 568,000 opioid “naïve” patients in the Aetna health insurance data base given prescription opioids for acute postoperative pain over the period of 2008-2016. The researchers found the “total misuse rate,” i.e., rate of all opioid misuse diagnoses among the 568,000 patients prescribed the opioids, was 0.6 percent.

Senator Portman told Ohio reporters, “After day four, five or six, the chances of becoming addicted are higher.” Maybe he is reacting to the statement by the researchers in the BMJ report that each refill and additional week of opioid use was “associated with an adjusted increase in the rate of misuse of 44%.” But a deeper look at their data shows the incidence of opioid misuse rose from 145 cases per 100,000 person years, or 0.15 percent per year, in patients who had no refills, to 293 cases per 100,000 person years, or 0.29 percent per year, for persons who had one refill. Indeed, that is nearly double. But if you nearly double a very low number, you still get a low number.

The fact is the overdose rate from the non-medical use of licit and illicit drugs has been on a steady exponential increase since the 1970s and shows no signs of slowing down. The only thing that has changed over the years is the particular drug in popular use at any given time. The reasons behind this are complex and multifactorial, and likely sociocultural and psychosocial. In the early part of this century the popular drugs for non-medical users were diverted prescription opioids. Next it became heroin. For the past several years it has been heroin and fentanyl. Methamphetamine related deaths are now surging to all-time high levels, and preliminary estimates from the CDC place the number of meth-related deaths at nearly 13,000 in 2018—eclipsing the number for prescription opioid-involved deaths.

Senator Portman is two or three drugs behind in his prosecution of the drug war. 

To bring the death rate down, Senator Portman should learn a lesson from his home state of Ohio, where a recent embrace of harm reduction measures—expanding needle exchange programs, distributing the overdose antidote naloxone, and increasing access to Medication Assisted Treatment—has led to a 23.3 percent drop in overdose deaths in 2018 according preliminary CDC data. Harm reduction is a proven strategy for saving lives.

If Senator Portman wishes to craft legislation that can truly save lives, he should propose a repeal of the federal “Crack House Statute.” This law stands in the way of many of the country’s largest cities that wish to establish Safe Injection Facilities, which are preventing overdoses and saving lives in more than 120 cities throughout Europe, Canada, and Australia.


New Study from American Action Forum Adds to the Argument Against Present Supply-Side Opioid Policy

On April 11 the Washington Post cited a new study from the American Action Forum that reinforces arguments I have made here and here, that despite a dramatic reduction in the opioid prescription rate—a 41 percent reduction in high-dose opioid prescriptions since prescriptions peaked in 2010—the overdose rate continues to climb, as nonmedical users have simply migrated to more dangerous substitutes like fentanyl and heroin while the supply of diverted prescription opioids suitable for abuse continues to come down.

I have a minor quibble with the study’s finding that “the annual growth rate of prescription opioid-involved overdose fatalities significantly slowed from 13.4 percent before 2010 to just 4.8 percent after.” In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention end-of-2017 Data Brief No. 294 reported:

The rate of drug overdose deaths involving natural and semisynthetic opioids, which include drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, increased from 1.0 [per 100,000] in 1999 to 4.4 in 2016. The rated increased on average by 13% per year from 1999-2009 and by 3% per year from 2009-2016. (Emphasis added)

As an aside, it is worth mentioning that four researchers working in the CDC’s Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention reported in the April 2018 American Journal of Public Health that the CDC’s method for tracking opioid overdose deaths have over-estimated the number due to prescription opioids, calling the rate “significantly inflated.” Many overdose deaths actually due to fentanyl are folded into the “prescription opioid” numbers since, technically, fentanyl is a prescription drug even though it is rarely prescribed outside of the hospital in a form suitable for abuse. 

The AAF report understates the significant role that the abuse-deterrent reformulation of OxyContin and other opioids have played in driving nonmedical users to heroin and fentanyl. The researchers “suggest” abuse-deterrent formulations “could be a major factor driving the rise in heroin fatalities.” But evidence of the connection is much more powerful and convincing, as I presented in the Cato Policy Analysis “Abuse-Deterrent Opioids and the Law of Unintended Consequences” in February of this year.


From “Opioid Epidemic” to “Stimulant Epidemic”

Speaking at the National Rx Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, John Eadie, coordinator for the National Threat Initiative, warned, “We’re now facing a very significant stimulant epidemic.” Abuse of prescription stimulants such as Adderal and Ritalin (used to treat Attention Deficit Disorders) as well as illicit stimulants, like cocaine and methamphetamine, are surging. “No one is paying attention to this,” Eadie said, because the focus has been on opioids.

Law enforcement has seized 15 kilograms of stimulants for every kilogram of heroin it has seized during the last 5 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that psychostimulant overdose deaths rose 30 percent in the past year. There is evidence to suggest stimulant abuse is now outpacing opioid abuse. And the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that cocaine use and availability are at their highest level in a decade.

I wrote here about the resurgence of methamphetamine abuse once meth labs, especially in Mexico, found a substitute for Sudafed after the federal and state governments made it more difficult to obtain. And Oregon health authorities reported overdose deaths from heroin dropped in 2016 to 107 while overdose deaths from methamphetamine rose to 141.

There are lessons to be learned from this news if anyone chooses to learn them. The obvious one is that the “War on Drugs,” America’s longest war, is unwinnable. This lesson was apparently not learned when the nation experimented with alcohol prohibition in the early 20thcentury. When a market exists for willing buyers and sellers, prohibition just drives that market underground. Waging a war on drugs is like playing a game of “Whac-a-mole.”

But the other lesson relates to current opioid policy. Policymakers seem stuck in what should, by now, be an obviously false narrative: that the opioid overdose crisis is a product of doctors prescribing opioids to their patients. And even after considerable reductions in the prescribing and manufacturing of opioids for patients has shifted non-medical users over to heroin and fentanyl—now the dominant causes of opioid deaths—policymakers can’t disabuse themselves of this false narrative. They continue to double down on restricting prescriptions of opioids and make many patients suffer in the process. 

The opioid overdose crisis has always primarily been the result of non-medical users seeking opioids in the illicit market—where the dose, purity, and even the actual identity of a substance can never be known with confidence. 

The resurgence of stimulant abuse and overdose should not be viewed in isolation. It should be integrated with the opioid issue. Both should be viewed in the broader context of substance abuse in the presence of drug prohibition. Sociocultural and psychosocial factors may ultimately explain why the use and abuse of mind altering drugs is on the rise across much of the developed world

As long as policymakers continue using supply-side interventions, hoping to win an unwinnable war, the problem will continue to grow.