Tag: Opioids

Prohibition Is the Obvious Cause of Opioid Crisis as CDC Releases Preliminary Casualty Numbers for 2017

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.

There Is More Than One Way to “Spin” a Stat

I recently wrote about how ideology and confirmation bias has infiltrated research into the opioid overdose issue. I spoke about how researchers can “spin” their findings to comport with the prevailing narrative and improve the likelihood of getting published in peer-reviewed journals.

An example occurred yesterday, when the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation announced, with the headline “Unwise opioids for wisdom teeth: Study shows link to long-term use in teens and young adults,” the publication of a research letter in JAMA that day by a team of its researchers.

The study of over 70,000 dental patients, ranging from 13 to 30 years in age, who had wisdom teeth extracted between 2009 and 2015 found, 

In all, 1.3 percent of 56,686 wisdom tooth patients who filled their opioid prescription between 2009 and 2015 went on to persistent opioid use, defined as two or more prescriptions filled in the next year written by any provider for any reason. That’s compared with 0.5 percent of the 14,256 wisdom tooth patients who didn’t fill a prescription.” 

Set aside the fact this study shows prolonged use is very low. Is there something inherently bad about refilling opioid prescriptions and staying on opioids longer than the average person if one is not addicted? Since we know that opioids have very few harmful effects on organs compared to alcohol, acetaminophen, or NSAIDs (with prolonged use), and since the addiction and misuse rate is somewhere around 1 percent, why are the authors so upset if some people stay on the drug longer than others. The lead author calls this a “long term ill effect.” Really?

Meanwhile, on the same day, another research letter was also published in JAMA by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston that looked at 1.3 million patients who received 22 types of surgical procedures between the years 2004 and 2015. The study found a 30-day post-discharge overdose rate of 10.3 per 100,000 patients (0.01 percent), dropping to 3.2 overdoses per 100,000 patients (0.0032 percent) for those 61 to 90 days post-discharge. The authors found overdoses within 30 days post-discharge were very low in patients who were “opioid naïve”—2.8 per 100,000 patients (0.0028 percent)—as opposed to patients who were receiving opioids prior to surgery. In patients who were chronically receiving high-dose opioids prior to the operation (defined by the authors as greater than the equivalent of 100mg of morphine per day) that rate jumped to 142.5 per 100,000 patients (0.14 percent).

The authors stated in their concluding discussion:

This study demonstrated that opioid overdose after surgical discharge was rare. Patients were at risk of experiencing an overdose after leaving the hospital, especially in the first month. Furthermore, patients using high quantities of opioids preoperatively were at a heightened risk compared with those not receiving high-dose opioid therapy prior to the operation.”

The big takeaway from this study is that overdose rates in patients discharged on opioids postoperatively are extremely low—even in those who had been chronically receiving high-dose opioids preoperatively. But the authors of the study spent most of the time discussing the fact that overdoses can and do occur in patients discharged from surgery on opioids and occur more frequently in patients who had been on opioids preoperatively.

Give credit to the medical news service MedPage Today for providing dispassionate, no-spin coverage to both studies by covering them together in a story on August 7 entitled: “Post-Surgery Overdoses Are Rare—but higher odds of persistent use seen following some procedures.”

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Politics, Confirmation Bias, and Opioids

This post co-authored with Rafael Fonseca, MD, Chairman of the Department of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Phoenix, AZ

Much has been written about how politics and ideology influence research funding, suppress research in certain areas, and lead to the cherry-picking and misrepresentation of evidence in support of a narrative or agenda. Science journalist John Tierney explored “The Real War on Science” in an excellent essay in City Journal in 2016. Reflecting on this phenomenon in 2011, Patrick J. Michaels stated:

The process is synergistic and self-fulfilling. Periodicals like Science are what academia uses to define the current truth. But the monolithic leftward inclination of the reviewing   community clearly permits one interpretation (even if not supported by the results) and not another. This type of blatant politicized science is becoming the norm in the environmental arena, and probably has infiltrated most every other discipline, too.

It certainly has infiltrated research into the emotionally charged opioid overdose problem afflicting the US and many other western nations. Policy decisions have been rooted in a narrative seemingly immune to the facts: that the problem is largely the result of greedy pharmaceutical companies manipulating careless and poorly-trained doctors into “hooking” patients on highly addictive opioids and condemning them to a nightmarish life of drug addiction.

Tierney writes of confirmation bias—the tendency of people to seek out and accept information that confirms their beliefs and prejudices. He bemoans the “groupthink” that allows confirmation bias to infiltrate the peer review process. He cites a well-known study that demonstrated reviewers were more likely to find problems with a study’s methodology if the findings were contrary to their prejudices yet overlook methodological shortcomings if the findings were confirmatory.

Sometimes investigators try to “spin” their findings to make them comport to the narrative and appear confirmatory, increasing the likelihood that their research gets published. 

Both of us are practicing physicians, and each of us recently experienced reminders that research into the opioid overdose issue is not exempt from politicization and confirmation bias. We would like to present two recent examples where this confirmation bias became self-evident. 

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Civilian Casualties Continue to Mount in Governments’ War on Opioids

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.

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.

 

Methadone and Mixed Messages

As a physician licensed to prescribe narcotics, I am legally  permitted to prescribe the powerful opioid methadone (also known by the brand name Dolophine ) to my patients suffering from severe, intractable pain that hasn’t been adequately controlled by other, less powerful pain killers. Most patients I encounter who might fall into that category are likely to be terminal cancer patients. I’ve often wondered why I am approved to prescribe methadone to my patients as a treatment for pain, but I am not allowed to prescribe methadone to taper my patients off of a physical dependence they may have developed from long-term opioid use, so as to help them avoid the horrible acute withdrawal syndrome. I am also not permitted to prescribe methadone as a medication-assisted treatment for addiction. These last two uses of the drug require special licensing and permits and must comply with strict federal guidelines. 

The synthetic opioid methadone was invented in Germany in 1937. By the 1960s, methadone was found to be effective as medication-assisted treatment for heroin addiction, and by the 1970s methadone treatment centers were established throughout the US, providing specialized and highly structured care for patients suffering from Substance Abuse Disorder. The Narcotic Addict Treatment Act of 1974 codified the methadone clinic structure. Today, methadone clinics are strictly regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration. These regulations establish guidelines for the establishment, structure, and operation of methadone clinics, in most cases requiring patients to obtain their methadone in person at one fixed site. After a period of time, some of these patients are allowed to take methadone home from the facility to self-administer while they remain closely monitored. This onerous regulatory system has led to an undersupply in methadone treatment facilities for patients in need. Furthermore, the need for patients to travel, often long distances, each day to the clinic to receive their daily dose has been an obstacle to their obtaining and complying with the treatment program.

Earlier this month addiction specialists from the Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health argued in the New England Journal of Medicine that community physicians interested in the treatment of Substance Abuse Disorder should be allowed to prescribe methadone to their patients seeing them in their offices and clinics. Doctors have been allowed to prescribe the opioid buprenorphine for medication-assisted treatment of addiction for years, and in recent years nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants have been able to obtain waivers that allow them to engage in medication-assisted treatment as well.

The authors noted that methadone has been legally prescribed by primary care providers to treat opioid addiction in other countries for many years— in Canada since 1963, in the UK since 1968, and in Australia since 1970, for example. They state, 

Methadone prescribing in primary care is standard practice and not controversial in these places because it benefits the patient, the care team, and the community and is viewed as a way of expanding the delivery of an effective medication to an at-risk population.

Policymakers serious about addressing the ever-increasing overdose rate from (mostly) heroin and fentanyl afflicting our population should take a serious look at reforming the antiquated regulations that hamstring the use of methadone to treat addiction.

 

FDA Commissioner Gottlieb’s Sunday “Tweetorial” Is Both Encouraging and Frustrating

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.

No, Babies Are NOT Born Addicted to Opioids

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” is a phrase coined by Stanford economist Paul Romer. Politicians are always in search of new crises to address—new fires to put out—with rapid and decisive action. In their passion to appear heroic to their constituents they often act in haste, not taking the time to develop a deep and nuanced understanding of the issue at hand, insensitive to the notion that their actions might actually exacerbate the crisis.

An example of that lack of understanding was made apparent in a press release by the office of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) on June 22 supporting legislation that packages together over 70 bills (H.R.6) aimed at addressing the opioid (now mostly heroin and fentanyl) overdose crisis. The bills mostly double down on the same feckless—often deleterious—policies that government is already using to address the crisis. The release stated, “Whip Scalise highlighted a Slidell, Louisiana family whose son was born addicted to opioids, a syndrome called NAS, as a result of his mother’s battle with addiction.” 

The press release quoted Representative Scalise:

I highlight Kemper, a young boy from my district in Slidell, Louisiana. He was born addicted to opioids because his mother, while she was pregnant, was addicted to opioids herself…this example highlights something the Centers for Disease Control has noted. That is once every 25 minutes in America a baby is born addicted to opioids. Once every 25 minutes. That’s how widespread it is, just for babies that are born.

Before crowing that the “House Takes Action to Combat the Opioid Crisis,” as the press release was titled, Representative Scalise should get his science right. No baby is ever born addicted to opioids. As medical science has known for years, there is a difference between addiction and physical dependence—on a molecular level. Drs. Nora Volkow and Thomas McLellan of the National Institute on Drug Abuse pointed out in a 2016 article in the New England Journal of Medicine that addiction is a disease, and “genetic vulnerability accounts for at least 35 to 40% of the risk associated with addiction.” Addiction features compulsive drug use in spite of harmful, self-destructive consequences.

Physical dependence, on the other hand, is very different. As with many other classes of drugs, including antidepressants like Prozac or Lexapro, long-term use of opioids is associated with the development of a physical dependence on the drug. Abruptly stopping the drug can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. A physically dependent patient needs the drug in order to function while avoiding withdrawal. Dependence is addressed by gradually reducing the dosage of the drug over a safe time frame. Once the dependence is overcome, such a patient will not have a compulsion to resume the drug.

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