harm reduction

Libertarians and Harm Reduction

Last week we held a day-long conference at the Cato Institute devoted to exploring the strategy known as “harm reduction” to address the rising rate of drug overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV.  

In my remarks at the beginning and at the conclusion of the conference, I pointed out that the harms afflicting the drug-using community and their intimate contacts are the direct result of drug prohibition. Cato’s Jeffrey Miron emphasized that point in a key presentation and discussed the success Portugal has had in reducing overdose deaths, HIV, hepatitis, and the heroin addiction rate after it decriminalized all drugs in 2001.

While I stated that the ultimate act of harm reduction would be to end the War on Drugs, I argued that, as a start, the goal of drug policy must shift from one that is focused on prohibiting and punishing the consumption of certain unapproved substances to one that is focused on reducing the disease transmission and deaths that come from drug prohibition. Rather than continue to pour huge amounts of resources into putting people in cages for buying, selling, or placing certain unapproved substances into their bodies, those resources would be put to better use reducing the harms our current policies inflict on people. Harm reduction is realistic. It recognizes there will never be a drug-free society and therefore seeks to make nonmedical use of licit and illicit drugs in the black market less dangerous.

Harm reduction strategies include:

  • Needle-exchange programs and safe (aka supervised) injection facilities 
  • Medication Assisted Treatment with drugs like methadone, buprenorphine, and sometimes hydromorphone (dilaudid) and heroin—so those with addiction or dependency can avoid the horrors of withdrawal (and the use of dirty needles) while stabilizing their lives, then gradually taper off the drug on which they are dependent.
  • Making the overdose antidote naloxone as well as fentanyl test strips more readily available. 
  • Decriminalizing cannabis, which has demonstrated potential in the treatment of pain as well as in the management of withdrawal and possibly even as Medication Assisted Treatment.

The Unrecognized Lesson of “Meth Crisis 2.0”

On February 21, Charles Fain Lehman wrote an important column in the Wall Street Journal alerting the public to the alarming rise in methamphetamine-related deaths in recent years. This has been occurring under our noses while the press and lawmakers focus their attention on overdoses related to opioids. 

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.

The War on Opioids Has Become a War on Patients

As Anne Fuqua recently pointed out in the Washington Post, non-medical drug users accessing heroin and fentanyl in the underground drug market are not the only victims in the opioid crisis. Many patients for whom prescriptions opioids are the only relief from a life sentence of torturing pain are also victims. That is because policymakers continue to base their strategies on the misguided and simplistic notion that the opioid overdose crisis impacting the US, Canada, and Europe, is tied to doctors prescribing opioids to their patients in pain.

Unfortunately, political leaders and the media operate in an echo chamber, reinforcing the notion that cutting back on doctors prescribing opioids is the key to reducing overdose deaths. As a result, all 50 states operate Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs that track the prescribing habits of doctors and intimidate them into curtailing the prescription of opioids. Yet multiple studies suggest that PDMPs have no effect on the opioid overdose rate and may be contributing to its increase by driving desperate pain patients to the dangers that await them in the black market.

Last month Arizona joined the list of 24 states that had put in place limits on the amount and dosage of opioids doctors may prescribe acute and postoperative pain patients. These actions are based on the amateur misinterpretation of the 2016 opioid guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and are not evidence-based.

And the Food and Drug Administration continues to promote the replacement of prescription opioids with abuse-deterrent formulations, despite an abundance of evidence showing this policy only serves to drive non-medical users to heroin and fentanyl while raising health care costs to health systems and patients.

As prescriptions continue to decrease, overdose deaths continue to increase. This is because as non-medical users get reduced access to usable diverted prescription opioids, they migrate to more dangerous fentanyl and heroin.

It is simplistic—and thus provides an easy target—for politicians and the media to latch on to the false narrative that greedy pharmaceutical companies teamed up with lazy, poorly-trained doctors, to hook innocent patients on opioids and condemn them to a life of drug addiction. But this has never been the case.

As Patrick Michaels pointed out about recrudescent opiophobia back in 2004, prescription opioids actually have a low addictive potential and when taken by patients under the guidance of a physician, have a very low overdose potential. Cochrane systematic studies in 2010 and 2012 both found an addiction rate of roughly 1 percent in chronic non-cancer pain patients. And a January 2018 study in BMJ by researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins examined 568,000 opioid naïve patients prescribed opioids for acute and postoperative pain from 2008 to 2016 and found a total “misuse” rate (all “misuse” diagnostic codes) of just 0.6 percent. And researchers at the University of North Carolina reported in 2016 on 2.2 million residents of the state who were prescribed opioids, where they found an overdose rate of 0.022 percent.

Politicians Cannot Stop Punishing Patients for the Unintended Consequences of Drug Prohibition

It seems no amount of evidence can make political leaders disabuse themselves of the misguided notion that the nation’s opioid overdose crisis is caused by doctors getting patients hooked on prescription opioids. A group of eight senators unveiled the CARA(Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act) 2.0 Act on February 27, targeting the opioid crisis. It would impose a 3-day limit on all opioid prescribing for patients in acute and outpatient postoperative pain.

But the movement to restrict prescriptions is not evidence-based, as prominent experts have pointed out. The politicians base their proposal on the 2016 opioid guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidelines stated:

When opioids are used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and should prescribe no greater quantity than needed for the expected duration of pain severe enough to require opioids. Three days or less will often be sufficient; more than seven days will rarely be needed.

The guidelines pointed out that the above recommendations were based on “Type 4” evidence:

Type 4 evidence indicates that one has very little confidence in the effect estimate, and the true effect is likely to be substantially different from the estimate of the effect.

It further described Type 4 evidence as being based upon “clinical experience and observations, observational studies with important limitations, or randomized clinical trials with several major limitations.”

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