Overdose

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.

For Those Who Are Serious About Increasing Access to MAT for Opioid Use Disorder…

The synthetic opioid methadone, developed in Germany in the 1930s for the treatment of severe pain, has been employed for the Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) of heroin addiction and opioid use disorder since the 1960s. In the US, methadone clinics are tightly regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

Patients receiving methadone to treat their addiction must ingest it under the observation and supervision of clinic staff, who keep it in a lock box. Eventually, patients are permitted to take a few doses home with them for use over the weekend, and only after a lengthy course are some patients allowed to take home doses for themselves for “maintenance” purposes.

Individual states add additional layers of regulation. West Virginia has had a statewide moratorium on new methadone clinics since 2007. Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Wyoming have onerous restrictions and caps on their growth. Ohio recently lifted its moratorium on privately-owned methadone clinics. 

All of this makes it very difficult for health care practitioners who wish to treat patients with substance abuse disorder to do so using methadone. Despite these obstacles, the DEA reports it approved 254 new methadone clinics between 2014 and 2018 in response to the opioid overdose crisis. But the demand for methadone clinics far exceeds the supply. And it is unrealistic to expect people seeking treatment who live in rural areas or in states where methadone clinics are few and far between to drive long distances to and from the nearest clinic to take their daily dose. 

Contrast this with MAT using buprenorphine (Suboxone). This partial opioid agonist was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for MAT in 2002 and was combined with the overdose antidote naloxone into its abuse-deterrent formulation, Suboxone, in 2010. Under the Drug Addiction and Treatment Act (DATA) passed in 2000, doctors were permitted to prescribe buprenorphine on an ambulatory basis after taking an 8-hour course and meeting other requirements administered by SAMHSA. There are strict limits on the number of patients a practitioner may treat, and nurse practitioners and physician assistants need to obtain a waiver in order to prescribe Suboxone.  Congress passed the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act last October, raising the quota on the number of patients a doctor can treat while expanding the role of nurse practitioners and physician assistants. These regulations still deter many practitioners from providing MAT to their patients. SAMHSA reports that as of this date only 8 percent of practitioners have sought certification for buprenorphine treatment. Yet as onerous as these regulations may be, they are not nearly as onerous as those that govern methadone treatment.

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. 

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.)

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