Tag: Overdose

Will US Drug Policymakers Blow It Again—This Time With Benzodiazepines?

In a recent column, Maia Szalavitz reports on the rise in overdose deaths related to benzodiazepines (a class of tranquilizers including Xanax, Valium, and Ativan). According to a recent study in JAMA, the number benzodiazepine prescriptions doubled in the US  from 2003 to 2015. And benzodiazepines are found in the bloodstream of almost a third of all opioid overdose victims—a nearly ten-fold increase since the beginning of this century. Szalavitz reminds us that the US is not the only developed country with an overdose problem from the nonmedical use of prescription drugs: Scotland has been contending with this problem for years, and the city of Dundee has been dubbed the “drug death capital of Europe.” 

Unlike the US, where fentanyl was found in 40 percent of overdose deaths in 2017, the main ingredients of Scotland’s overdoses are benzodiazepines, involved in more than half the drug deaths in Scotland. Like the US, most of Scotland’s overdose deaths involve multiple drugs, including heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, and alcohol.

US policy focused on decreasing opioid prescribing (high dose opioid prescriptions are down 58 percent in the US since 2008). Likewise, Scottish policy emphasized and succeeded in reducing benzodiazepine prescribing. In both cases, the goal was to reduce the amount of the drug available for diversion to the black market for nonmedical users. And in both cases, the efficient black market filled the vacuum with illicit and more dangerous substitutes.

Illicit benzodiazepines like phenazepam (originally developed in the USSR in the 1970s) and etizolam are much more potent and dangerous. Many are made in local clandestine labs and pressed into counterfeit Xanax or Valium pills.

Benzodiazepine overdoses are manifested by the victims growing stuporous, lapsing into a coma, hypoventilating from respiratory depression, developing bluish fingernails from decreased oxygenation and, ultimately, dying. Benzodiazepine withdrawal can last much longer than opioid withdrawal, sometimes taking months or years, often featuring seizures, and is much more likely to result in death. The potentially lethal consequences of acute withdrawal make Medication Assisted Treatment of benzodiazepine dependency or addiction essential.

It seems the Scots sowed the same (failed) supply-side policies towards benzodiazepine overdoses that the US did towards opioid overdoses. And they reaped the same results. Szalavitz explains:

“People who once had access to drugs that were of known dosage and purity suddenly did not. Drug dealers stepped in to meet the demand, and the global supply chain of illegally-manufactured pharmaceuticals provided the products users wanted.”wareness of the growing role of benzodiazepines in the US overdose crisis, US policymakers should learn from Scotland’s mistakes in addressing nonmedical benzodiazepine use so as not to repeat them. But that requires them to recognize that Scotland was merely emulating US policy towards opioids.

The growing role played by benzodiazepines in US drug overdose deaths is gaining more attention. US policymakers should learn from and avoid the mistakes Scotland made in dealing with nonmedical benzodiazepine use. That means recognizing that Scotland was emulating US policy toward nonmedical opioid use. 

(Maia Szalavitz will be a featured speaker at the Cato Institute day-long conference on harm reduction on March 21.) 

Add Hepatitis C to the List of Unintended Consequences of Abuse-Deterrent Opioids

One year ago Cato published my policy analysis, “Abuse-Deterrent Opioids and the Law of Unintended Consequences,” which provided strong evidence that reformulating opioids, so that they could not be crushed for snorting or dissolved for injecting by nonmedical users, only served to drive nonmedical users to more dangerous, readily available, and cheaper heroin provided by the efficient black market. 

The evidence included a RAND study that found “a substantial share of the dramatic increase in heroin deaths since 2010 can be attributed to the reformulation of OxyContin” which replaced regular OxyContin in 2010. It also included a study from researchers at Notre Dame and Boston Universities that found:

When we combine heroin and opioid deaths together, we find no evidence that total heroin and opioid deaths fell at all after the reformulation—there appears to have been one-for-one substitution of heroin deaths for opioid deaths.

Now comes a new RAND study that finds the abuse-deterrent reformulation of OxyContin led to an increase in cases of hepatitis C from IV drug use. As nonmedical users switched from OxyContin to injectable heroin, more became exposed to hepatitis C, transmitted by needle sharing.

The study compared states with above-median misuse rates of OxyContin to states with below-median misuse rates before and after the drug’s reformulation—from 2004 to 2015. Prior to the reformulation there was almost no difference in hepatitis C infection rates between the states. After the reformulation, states with above-median misuse rates saw a 222 percent increase in hepatitis C infections, while the below-median states saw a 75 percent increase during the same period. 

Add hepatitis C to the list of unintended consequences from abuse-deterrent reformulation of opioids.

Despite mounting evidence that abuse-deterrent reformulation of opioids has done nothing to reduce overdoses but may in fact be adding to them, the Food and Drug Administration continues to encourage pharmaceutical manufacturers to bring more abuse-deterrent formulations to market. As was the case with OxyContin, reformulation often results in extension of existing patents, reducing competition from generics and allowing patent holders to charge and profit more from their product. So opioid manufacturers are answering the FDA’s call for more abuse-deterrent reformulations.

Now that we have strong evidence that abuse-deterrent formulations spread disease as well as death, perhaps the FDA will reconsider this ill-advised policy.

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Latest Numbers From Massachusetts Provide More Evidence That Prohibition Is The True Killer

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported today on the opioid-related overdose rate in the commonwealth for 2017. The good news is the overdose death rate decreased by 8 percent from 2016 to 2017. 

But a closer look at the numbers reveals that overdoses from prescription opioids were found in around 20 percent of “opioid deaths with specific drugs present.” (See figure 4, page 3 of the report.)

A startling 83 percent had fentanyl present in their drug screens, 43 percent had heroin, and 41 percent had cocaine. The report stated that the fentanyl was “most likely illicitly produced and sold, not prescription fentanyl.”

The 20 percent of deaths in which prescription opioids were found in the screen does not break things down any further, but judging by the estimated 68 percent of opioid-related deaths that feature multiple drugs on board (such as benzodiazepines, fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, alcohol), we can safely assume that the overdose rate due exclusively to prescription painkillers is significantly lower than 20 percent.

Meanwhile, policymakers stay fixated on pressuring doctors to prescribe fewer and lower doses of opioids for their patients in pain, and state attorneys general set their sights on suing opioid manufacturers, completely ignoring the fact that the overdose crisis has primarily been about nonmedical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market. Prohibition is the real killer.

Has Opioid Hysteria Risen to the Point Where Innovation Is Forbidden?

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.

As If We Needed It, More Evidence Emerges Showing That The Government Has Changed The Opioid Crisis Into a Fentanyl Crisis

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.

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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