addiction

Toward a Healthy Relationship with Opioids

In the June 14th Wall Street Journal, Johns Hopkins University bioethicist Travis Rieder, in an excellent essay, shared with readers his battle with pain resulting from a devastating accident, the effectiveness of opioids in controlling the pain, and the hell he went through when he was too rapidly tapered off of the opioids to which he had become physically dependent. Like most patients requiring long term pain management with opioids, he developed a physical dependence, which is often mistakenly equated with addiction by policymakers and many in the media. 

The aggressive schedule launched me into withdrawal, and I learned viscerally, firsthand, what the absence of opioids can do to someone whose brain has become accustomed to them. Those symptoms include increased sensitivity to the very pain that the opioids counteract, as well as extreme flu-like symptoms, insomnia and crippling depression. I came to understand why people sometimes go back onto deadly dangerous drugs: because the alternative is such profound suffering that it makes you want to die.

I have criticized policymakers for their ham-handed approach based upon a misinterpretation and misapplication of the guidelines on pain management with opioids, released in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, herehere, and here. As explained in an article I co-authored in the Journal of Pain Research in February 2019, this blunt reaction is based upon the false assumption that opioid-related overdose deaths from nonmedical use is primarily a result of doctors treating patients in pain.

In his essay, Dr. Rieder levels similar criticisms:

Perhaps the greatest challenge about them [opioids] today is to resist the urge to be simplistic or reactionary. America’s current crisis of overuse has led some prescribers to avoid the drugs completely, and it has led politicians to occasionally consider ham-fisted policy solutions, like limiting the lengths or dosages of prescriptions regardless of any individual patient’s needs. But when a medication has both risks and benefits, what we need isn’t one-size-fits-all policies but nuance. 

Dr. Rieder was one of dozens of scholars, academics, physicians, and pain experts who signed a letter to the Oregon Health Authority in March, authored by Stanford University Medical School Professor Sean Mackey, urging against the Authority’s plans to force a rapid tapering off of opioids on all of the chronic pain patients in Oregon’s Medicaid system. That letter, plus push-back from patient advocacy groups, caused the Oregon Health Authority to put its plans on hold. It should not be lost on readers of this blog post that such interventions in the practice of medicine and the delivery of health care  are part and parcel of a state-run health care system.

Today’s Drug Abusers Did Not Derive From Yesterday’s Patients

We learned last week that the 2017 drug overdose numbers reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clearly show most opioid-related deaths are due to illicit fentanyl and heroin, while deaths due to prescription opioids have stabilized, continuing a steady trend for the past several years. I’ve encouraged using the term “Fentanyl Crisis” rather than “Opioid Crisis” to describe the situation, because it more accurately points to its cause—nonmedical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market fueled by drug prohibition—hoping this will redirect attention and lead to reforms that are more likely to succeed. But the media and policymakers remain unshakably committed to the idea that the overdose crisis is the product of greedy pharmaceutical companies manipulating gullible and poorly-trained doctors into over-prescribing opioids for patients in pain and ensnaring them in the nightmare of addiction.

As a result, most of the focus has been on pressing health care practitioners to decrease their prescribing, imposing guidelines and ceilings on daily dosages that may be prescribed, and creating surveillance boards to enforce these parameters. These guidelines are not evidence-based, as Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb seems to realize, and have led to the abrupt tapering of chronic pain patients off of their medication, making many suffer desperately. An open letter by distinguished pain management experts appeared last week in the journal Pain Medicine criticizing current policies for lacking a basis in scientific evidence and generating a “large-scale humanitarian issue.” 

Current policy has brought high-dose prescriptions down 41 percent between 2010 and 2016, another 16.1 percent in 2017, and another 12 percent this year. Yet overdose deaths continue to mount year after year, up another 9.6 percent in 2017.

One might expect the obvious prevalence of heroin and illicit fentanyl among overdose deaths would make policymakers reconsider the relationship between opioid prescribing, nonmedical use, and overdose deaths. The data certainly support viewing the overdose crisis as an unintended consequence of drug prohibition: nonmedical users preferred to use diverted prescription opioids and, as supplies became tougher to come by in recent years, the efficient black market responded by filling the void with cheaper and more dangerous heroin and fentanyl.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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