Is Ketamine an Opioid?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A drug used to treat depression and pain is being touted as possible solution to the opioid crisis.

This week a South Carolina drug maker said it would partner with a medical device company to sell ketamine in take home medication bags that can be administered by an ambulatory pain pump. The idea is to give patients recovering from surgery a safer alternative to opioids.

“We are proud to partner with InfuTronix Solutions to deliver opioid-free pain medication to patients across the country,” Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO Lou Kennedy said in a statement. “The overuse of opioids is a crisis in America. Non-narcotic pain management is a cost-saving way that companies like ours can help save lives.”

Non-narcotic? Opioid-free?

That’s not what a team of researchers at Stanford University concluded last year after studying how ketamine works in the brain. In a small clinical study, they gave a dozen patients diagnosed with depression a combination of ketamine and naltrexone – an opioid-receptor blocker. To their surprise, naltrexone stopped ketamine from working as an antidepressant.

In effect, the researchers discovered that ketamine works just like oxycodone, hydrocodone and other painkillers – by activating opioid receptors in the brain. 

“Everything that I was taught, and everything that I’ve always taught my students — all of the evidence supports the fact that ketamine is not an opioid,” said lead author Boris Heifets, MD, a clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine. “I was really surprised at the results.”

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“And the results were so clear that we ended the study early to avoid exposing additional patients to the ineffective combination treatment,” said co-lead author Nolan Williams, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science.

The Stanford research, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, caught psychiatrists and pain management experts by surprise. Some urged caution about the long-term use of ketamine until more can be learned about potential side effects such as addiction. Some depressed patients taken off ketamine have shown signs of withdrawal and became suicidal.

“Given the rapid relapse and potential suicide risk, it is hard to know what to recommend to clinicians. Should they really continue to use the agent beyond an acute course? For how long? In whom?” Alan Schatzberg, MD, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, warned in a commentary. “The drug’s opioid properties need to be considered when considering how best to use it.”

‘A Black Eye to Ketamine’

Talk like that has given ketamine a bad rap, according to experts at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. They’ve published a commentary of their own, defending the use of ketamine as a necessary treatment for depression that doesn’t respond to typical antidepressants.

“A (Stanford) study done late last year delivered a black eye to ketamine, and as a result of the coverage, there was a wholesale acceptance by both potential patients and physicians that ketamine is an opioid,” says Adam Kaplin, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins.

“This is most worrisome if people continue to think this way, particularly in the wake of the opioid epidemic; clinicians won’t refer patients for a treatment, despite that it has been shown to be incredibly effective for many patients with treatment-resistant depression.”

Kaplin says there is ample evidence that ketamine sticks to NMDA receptors in the brain that are involved in learning and memory. Because these NMDA receptors are found together with opioid receptors, Kaplin says it’s no surprise that the can meddle with one another, like interference picked up on a phone call or static on the radio.

“This interference and cross-talk does not mean that ketamine is an opioid, and to wrongly label it as such could eventually keep patients from essential antidepressant medications that could make a huge difference in their quality of life,” said Kaplin, who plans on opening a ketamine clinic.

The debate over whether ketamine is an opioid comes at a time when its use is expanding.  Ketamine was approved by the FDA in 1970 solely as a surgical anesthetic to be taken intravenously or by injection. But a growing number of clinics now offer off-label infusions of ketamine to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and difficult chronic pain conditions such as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

Demand has grown so much there are reports of ketamine shortages. Although ketamine itself is inexpensive, the infusions can cost several hundred dollars and are not covered by insurance.

Ketamine Nasal Spray

Not until this year did the Food and Drug Administration approve the use of ketamine to treat depression, when it okayed a nasal spray (Spravato) made by Janssen Pharmaceuticals that contains a ketamine compound.

The FDA approved Spravato even though 2 out of 3 short term trials failed to prove its effectiveness. The spray was effective in a longer trial, but only when taken with a conventional antidepressant.

Because of the risk of abuse and side effects, Spravato can only be administered in a doctor’s office, where patients can be observed for two hours after taking a dose. A single dose will cost about $900.

The FDA has called the herbal supplement kratom an opioid because it acts on opioid receptors, but the agency has not taken that step with ketamine. Given current attitudes about opioids, it’s fair to say the FDA would have never approved Spravato if it was considered an opiate.

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In addition to its medical uses, ketamine is used as a recreational party drug – known as “Special K” -- because it can cause hallucinations and intense dream-like states.

Whether taken to get high or to treat pain and depression, it’s clear that ketamine is a potent drug that has both harms and benefits. And experts say it needs to be viewed with caution until we know with more certainty how it works.

“Unfortunately, when one approaches ketamine as another antidepressant rather than a drug of abuse, this type of trap is easy to fall into, and in the end, such mistakes can be catastrophic,” Schatzberg said in his commentary. “We have witnessed four decades of supposedly new and safer opioids that have turned out often to be, if anything, even more abusable and lethal."

Some Pharmacies Won’t Sell Suboxone, But Street Dealers Do

By Nina Feldman, WHYY

Louis Morano knew what he needed, and he knew where to get it.

He made his way to a mobile medical clinic parked on a corner of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, in the geographical heart of the city’s overdose crisis. People call it “the bupe bus.”

Buprenorphine is a drug that curbs cravings and treats the symptoms of withdrawal from opioid addiction. One of the common brand name drugs that contains it, Suboxone, blends buprenorphine with naloxone. Combined with cognitive behavioral therapy, it is one of the three FDA-approved medicines considered the gold standard for opioid-addiction treatment.

Morano had tried Suboxone before — he had purchased some from a street dealer and had used it to get through his workday, when he couldn’t use heroin. It kept the misery of withdrawal sickness at bay.

Morano, 29, has done seven stints in rehab for opioid addiction in the past 15 years. So he had a sense of how the drug would make him feel. He’d always sort of thought of it as a crutch. But after a slip following his latest stint in rehab, he said, he committed to recovery.

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“I can’t do this anymore, and I need something,” Morano said.

The bupe bus — a project of Prevention Point Philadelphia, the city’s only syringe exchange program — is part of Philadelphia’s efforts to expand access to this particular form of medication-assisted treatment, known as MAT, for opioid addiction.

Morano was first in line at the mobile clinic. When the doors of the bus heaved open, Dr. Ben Cocchiaro waved Morano inside, where they squeezed into a tiny exam room.

Cocchiaro and Morano discussed how buprenorphine might help Morano’s recovery succeed this time, and whether he’d be open to seeing a therapist. Cocchiaro gave Morano instructions on how to take the medication, and then called a pharmacy to authorize a prescription.

Barriers to Treatment

To date, much of the research on barriers to buprenorphine access has focused on the fact that too few medical providers are certified to write the prescriptions. According to federal law, doctors must apply for a special waiver from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, to prescribe buprenorphine. To get the waiver, a doctor must undergo eight hours of training — and can prescribe the drug to a maximum of 30 patients at a time, to start. Given these constraints, many doctors don’t bother.

But pharmacists are also a part of the problem. Because they fill the prescriptions, pharmacists are the gatekeepers for the drug, and not all of them are willing to take on that role. Increasing pharmacists’ involvement in distributing buprenorphine might be just as important as persuading more doctors to prescribe it, according to Dan Ventricelli of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy.

“We can write a bunch of prescriptions for people,” he said. “But if they don’t have a pharmacy and a pharmacist that’s willing to fill that medication for them, fill it consistently and have an open conversation with that patient throughout that treatment process, then we may end up with a bottleneck at the community pharmacy.”

Just a few blocks from the bupe bus in Kensington, Richard Ost owns an independent pharmacy. He said his store was one of the first in the neighborhood to stock buprenorphine. But after a while, Ost started noticing that people were not using the medication as directed — they were selling it instead.

Buprenorphine acts as a partial opioid agonist, which means it’s a low-grade opioid. When taken in pill or tablet form, it’s unlikely to cause the same feelings of euphoria as heroin would, but it might if it were dissolved and injected. Many people buy it on the street for the same reason Morano did: to keep from going into withdrawal between injecting heroin or fentanyl. Others buy it to try to quit using on their own.

“We started seeing people do it in our store in front of us,” said Ost. He said it’s unethical to dispense a prescription if a patient turns around and sells it illegally, rather than use it. “Once we saw that with a patient, we terminated them as a patient.”

Ost explained that the illegal market for Suboxone also meant customers trying to stay sober were being continually targeted and tempted.

“So if we were having a lot of people in recovery coming out of our stores, the people who were dealing illicit drugs knew that, and they would be there to talk to them and they would say, ‘Well, I’ll give you this’ or ‘I’ll give you that,’ or ‘I’ll buy your Suboxone’ or ‘I’ll trade you for this.’”

Ost said that eventually his staff didn’t feel safe, and that neither did the customers. He understands the value of bupe but said it just wasn’t worth it. He mostly has stopped carrying it.

Even those pharmacies that aim to stock buprenorphine can run into problems. Limits set by wholesalers require pharmacies to order the drug in small, frequent batches. Though pharmacies can apply for exemptions to order more at a time, or to have a higher percentage of their total stock consist of controlled substances, doing so invites a higher level of scrutiny from the wholesaler and, in turn, the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Another issue is that doctors and pharmacists receive different education about how long buprenorphine should be prescribed before tapering a patient off it. Many medical providers might prescribe the drug for long-term treatment, based on recent SAMHSA guidelines, while pharmacists may view longer courses of treatment as posing the risk of long-term dependency.

“It’s not even that they’re on different pages,” said Ventricelli of the College of Pharmacy. “It’s that they’re reading completely different books.”

If a patient going through withdrawal can’t get buprenorphine quickly, the stakes are high. Silvana Mazzella, associate executive director at Prevention Point, said that when it’s not available, patients are more likely to turn back to heroin or fentanyl.

“We’re in a situation where if you are in withdrawal, you’re sick, you need to get well, you want help today, and if you can’t get it through medication-assisted treatment, unfortunately you will find it a block away, very quickly, and very cheaply,” she said.

Doctors with Prevention Point have found a pharmacy near the bupe bus that will reliably dispense buprenorphine to their Philadelphia patients. It’s a neighborhood branch of a local chain, called the Pharmacy of America.

The head pharmacist, Anthony Shirley, said he’s comfortable filling the scripts because he trusts that the doctors at Prevention Point will write prescriptions only for patients who need the medication. He has heard firsthand from patients who say buprenorphine saved their lives.

“That’s something you can’t really put a price tag on,” Shirley said. For him, the calculation is simple: His store is in an area where many people need buprenorphine. That means it’s his job to get it to them.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WHYY, NPR and Kaiser Health News. KHN is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Surgeons Reduce Rx Opioids Without Increasing Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Surgeons in Michigan have reduced the amount of opioid medication prescribed to patients recovering from common operations by nearly a third -- without causing patients to feel more postoperative pain.

In a new research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team from the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network (OPEN) reported on the results of a statewide effort to get surgical teams to follow prescribing guidelines for postoperative pain.

In just one year, surgeons at 43 Michigan hospitals reduced the number of opioid pills prescribed to patients after nine common operations, from an average of 26 pills per patient to an average of 18.

The surgeries included minor hernia repair, appendix and gallbladder removal, and hysterectomies. Most were minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries.

The ratings patients gave for their post-surgical pain and satisfaction didn't change from the ratings given by patients treated in the six months before opioids were reduced.

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Researchers say patients only took about half the opioids prescribed to them, even as the prescription sizes shrank. They attribute this to improved counseling about pain expectations and non-opioid pain control options.

"The success of the statewide effort suggests an opportunity for other states to build on Michigan's experience, and room for even further reductions in prescription size," said Michael Englesbe, MD, a University of Michigan surgery professor. "At the same time, we need to make sure that patients also know how to safely dispose of any leftover opioids they don't take."

The study involved over 11,700 patients who had operations at hospitals participating in the Michigan Surgical Quality Collaborative. About half of the patients also filled out surveys sent to their homes after their operations, asking about their pain, satisfaction and opioid use after surgery.

The Michigan-OPEN team has been working since 2016 to reduce opioid prescribing and quantify the appropriate number of pills patients should take. Their research led to the the development of new guidelines that were first tested on gallbladder surgery patients before being expanded to other types of surgery.

Some hospitals have stopped giving opioids to surgical patients. Patients at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital get acetaminophen, gabapentin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to manage their pain before and after colorectal operations – and their surgeons say the treatment results in better patient outcomes

It’s a common misconception that many patients become addicted to opioids after surgery. A 2016 Canadian study, for example, found that long term opioid use after surgery is rare, with less than one percent of older adults still taking opioid pain medication a year after major elective surgery.

Another large study in the British Medical Journal found similar results. Only 0.2% of patients who were prescribed opioids for post-surgical pain were later diagnosed with opioid dependence, abuse or a non-fatal overdose.

Another fallacy is that leftover pain medication is often stolen, sold or given away. The DEA says less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted.

Panel Recommends All Adults Be Screened for Illicit Drug Use

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The next time you visit a doctor, he or she may want to know more than what medications you take or if you consume alcohol.

An influential national panel of health experts is recommending for the first time that U.S. doctors screen all adult patients for illicit drug use, including the nonmedical use of opioids and other prescription drugs. “Nonmedical” means the use of a friend’s or relative’s prescription or buying medications off the street. It can also mean using a legal medication more frequently or in higher doses than prescribed.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded with “moderate certainty” that screening for illicit drug use would be beneficial because it would lead to a more accurate diagnosis and treatment for substance abuse.

Screening typically involves questions about drug use and frequency. This can include questions on routine intake forms or asking patients directly when they visit with a healthcare provider. Screening does not include drug testing, although nothing would stop a doctor from ordering such tests.

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“Illicit drug use can have a devastating impact on individuals and families,” said task force co-vice chair Karina Davidson, PhD, a professor of behavioral medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University. “Clinicians can help by screening their adult patients and connecting people who use illicit drugs to the care they need to get better.”

About 11.5% of Americans age 18 years or older reported using cannabis or illicit drugs in a national survey. Illicit drug use is more common in young adults ages 18 to 25 years (24.2%) than in older adults (9.5%).  About one in five illicit drug users reported the nonmedical use of psychotherapeutic drugs, including opioids, pain relievers, or other medications. Less than 8% reported using cocaine, hallucinogens, or inhalants.

Although illicit drug use is relatively common among adolescents (7.9%) aged 12 to 17, the task force said there was not enough evidence to support screening for Americans under the age of 18.

“We want to help prevent illicit drug use in teens, so we’re calling for more research on the benefits of screening,” said task force member Carol Mangione, MD, chief of general internal medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Clinicians should continue to use their professional judgement to determine what’s best for their teen patients.”

The task force’s draft report is available for public comment through September 9. After the task force reviews the comments, it will issue a final report. The panel’s recommendations are not mandatory for healthcare providers, but like many federal guidelines – such as the 2016 CDC opioid guideline -- they could be adopted as a “standard of care” by medical associations and healthcare systems.  Some already recommend that providers routinely screen their patients about illicit drug use.

AG’s Call for Weakening of HIPAA Laws

Federal laws that have long protected the privacy of patients undergoing addiction treatment may also be changing. The National Association of Attorneys General wants Congress to end regulations that prevent doctors from sharing information about their patients’ addiction treatment histories.

In a letter recently sent to congressional leaders, 39 state attorneys general called on Congress to “replace the cumbersome, out-of-date, privacy rules” contained in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). One section of the law – known as 42 CFR Part 2 – sets strict rules about disclosing patient records for substance abuse treatment.

“These privacy rules were created more than 40 years ago in a time of intense stigma surrounding substance use disorder treatment. They were created to assure patients that they would not face adverse legal or civil consequences when seeking treatment by protecting confidentiality of substance use disorder patient records,” the AG’s said.

“Unfortunately, they now serve to perpetuate that stigma, as the principle underlying these rules is that substance use disorder treatment is shameful and records of it should be withheld from other treatment providers in ways that we do not withhold records of treatment of other chronic diseases. While maintaining confidentiality is imperative to encouraging individuals to seek and obtain treatment, the inability to share records among providers can burden coordination of care, potentially resulting in harm to the patient.”

Two bills under consideration in Congress, the Overdose Prevention and Patient Safety Act and the Protecting Jessica Grubb’s Legacy Act would amend 42 CFR Part 2 to allow for addiction treatment records to be shared. The bills have been endorsed by over 40 national healthcare organizations, including the American Hospital Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Study: Prescription Drug Databases Overestimate Opioid Misuse

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Prescription drug monitoring has long been seen as the gold standard for tracking the opioid crisis. Patients who fill an opioid prescription for more than three months are considered long-term users with a higher risk of misuse, addiction and overdose. Many pharmacy chains assign a “risk score” to these patients and their doctors could even get a warning letter from the government.

But in a small study of emergency room patients, Canadian researchers found the risk of opioid misuse by long-term users is small and one out of five patients who fill opioid prescriptions don’t even use them. Their findings suggest that prescription databases alone are a poor way to measure opioid misuse.

“The rate of long‐term opioid use reported by filled prescription database studies should not be used as a surrogate for opioid misuse,” said lead author Raoul Daoust, MD, a professor and researcher in the Department of Family Medicine and Emergency Medicine at the University of Montreal.

Daoust and his colleagues surveyed 524 patients who were discharged from a hospital emergency department (ED) with an opioid prescription for acute pain. Instead of just relying on a database to track their prescriptions, the researchers asked the patients about their opioid use.

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Three months after discharge, only 47 patients – about 9 percent – said they were still using opioids. Of those, 72% said they used opioids to treat their initial pain and 19% were using the drugs to treat a new pain condition.

The remaining four patients said they used opioids for another reason, suggesting possible misuse. That’s less than one percent (0.8%) of the original 524 patients.

“Within the limit of our study, our results suggest that the risk of long‐term opioid use for reasons other than pain is low for ED discharged patients with an opioid prescription treating an acute pain condition,” Daoust reported in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine.

Daoust’s findings are controversial because they throw into question the widely accepted theory that all opioid prescribing is risky, whether it’s for chronic or acute pain. The methodology used in his study was questioned by one critic.

"Emergency physicians should not be reassured by the authors' findings. The lack of a denominator, poor response rate (56%), and applied definition of misuse are significant limitations,” said Gail D'Onofrio, MD, a professor of emergency medicine and chair in the department of emergency medicine at Yale University.

D'Onofrio cites a 2017 CDC study, which found that the probability of long-term opioid use increases sharply after the first few days of treatment.

“Transitions from acute to long-term therapy can begin to occur quickly: the chances of chronic use begin to increase after the third day supplied and rise rapidly thereafter,” CDC researchers warned.

But that analysis is based solely on the number of opioid prescriptions – not actual opioid use. And Daoust found that studies like that are a poor way to measure risk.

“These studies used filled prescriptions databases that could overestimate opioid use since not all patients filling an opioid prescription consumed them. As a case in point, in this study, 21% of patients who filled their opioid prescription after the initial ED visit did not consume them,” Daoust reported.

What is the risk of long-term opioid use after an emergency room visit? In a large 2017 study by the Mayo Clinic, only about 1 percent of ER patients given an opioid prescription progressed to long term use – similar to what Daoust found.

"Our paper lays to rest the notion that emergency physicians are handing out opioids like candy," said lead author Molly Moore Jeffery, PhD, scientific director of the Mayo Clinic Division of Emergency Medicine Research. “Most opioid prescriptions written in the emergency department are for shorter duration, written for lower daily doses and less likely to be for long-acting formulations."

A 2018 study also questioned the value of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) which have long been promoted as critical tools in the fight against opioid abuse. The study found little evidence that PDMPs are reducing overdoses and that they may lead to unintended consequences such as patients turning to street drugs for pain relief.

Are You Mad as Hell Yet?

By Fred Brown, Guest Columnist

I experienced in mid-life something that I wish on no one. Because of this event, I live with a disease called chronic pain.  I am considered a “pain patient” by the medical community, but I try not to see myself as such. I am a human being, living my life to the best of my ability.

I had several surgeries to fix a problem in my spine.  These procedures not only failed to fix the problem, they left me with severe and chronic intractable pain.

There is a way to relieve my pain and make me more functional, and it has been part of my life for over two decades: Opioid pain medication prescribed by a board-certified pain management physician.

Opioids give me quality of life and let me be a spouse, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

The problem I have is that there are people in state and federal agencies, along with legislators in our government, who think they know better than my trained doctor. These officials make claims without any science to back them up. They don’t want me to take opioids or say I should only use them at very low doses that do not work.

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There are millions of legitimate chronic pain patients like me who need these drugs. They are essentially being told, “Sorry, we do not want your physician to treat you the way they know best. And if you don’t do what we think is best for you, we can do nasty things to you and your doctor.”

These officials can use state and federal powers to take away your physician’s license to practice medicine. And if that is not enough, they can even put them in jail.  The government is persecuting doctors for legitimately prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

There is strong evidence -- using our own government's information -- to prove physicians have not caused the crisis. The writing of opioid prescriptions has been coming down for several years. What has been increasing are patients turning to street drugs or, even worse. committing suicide. They are not able to obtain relief the right way, so they go to the streets!

There has been so much disinformation about opioid medication that our media has distributed to the public.   Over and over, we hear that physicians have overprescribed opioids and caused the “opioid crisis.”

Over 40 years ago, there was a motion picture made called “Network.”  In the movie, there is a fantastic scene where an anchorman named Howard Beale becomes so frustrated and angry during a show that he shouts over and over, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Then he encourages Americans across the country to open their windows and do the same. Millions do.

To my fellow patients, advocates, friends, doctors and other healthcare workers. It is time to write, call and communicate with your Senator and Congressmen.

Like Howard Beale, tell them you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.   

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Fred Brown lives with degenerative disc disease, bone spurs, stenosis and other spinal problems. He is a patient advocate and volunteer with The Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP). 

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Are Rx Opioids Scapegoats for the Opioid Crisis?

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

The Washington Post recently published a series of stories about the volume of opioid medication distributed over the past several years in the United States. Over 76 billion pills were distributed from 2002 through 2012.

That sounds like a huge amount, but it is difficult to know what the number means. What is clear is that the stories are meant to suggest the number of pills is excessive and responsible for the rise in opioid overdose deaths. 

This presumed correlation is one reason for the recent lawsuits that have been filed against opioid manufacturers and distributors. It has also spawned policies that appear to have worsened, not prevented, overdoses.

Though the situation has been framed largely as a prescribing problem, the reasons for the drug crisis are many. While overprescribing has certainly been a factor, it is probably less important than other factors, such as joblessness, homelessness and despair, which are more challenging to address.

Let’s look at the data about the relationship between opioid prescriptions and overdose death rates. The number of opioid prescriptions in the United States peaked in 2012 and began a steady decline. By 2017, they reached a 15-year low.

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Despite the decline in the number of opioids prescribed, overdoses from all opioids – both legal and illegal -- continued to increase. Overdoses involving prescription opioids represent only about 25% of the total number of drug overdoses.  

Obviously, something more than the supply of prescription opioids is driving overdoses higher.

No Correlation Between Opioid Prescriptions and Overdoses

After winning a year-long court battle with the Justice Department, the Post and HD Media, publisher of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, were able to access data from the DEA’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS).

The information in the database shows that, between 2006 and 2012, West Virginia received the largest per capita amount of prescription opioids. The state also experienced the highest opioid-related death rate during that period. Is there a correlation?

Kentucky also had a high number of pills and a high death rate, but as Jacob Sullum recently reported in Reason, Kentucky’s death rate in 2017 was actually lower than Maryland’s and Utah’s, where prescription rates are substantially lower. He also pointed out that although Oregon’s prescription rate was among the highest in the country, the rate of deaths involving pain pills in Oregon was just 3.5 per 100,000, lower than the rates in most states. 

Sullum further showed that Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Tennessee were among the 10 states with the highest per capita prescribed pills during the 2006-2012 period. But they were not the states with the highest overdose rates. 

In a separate analysis, the CDC and Agency for Healthcare Research Quality found no correlation -- not even a weak one -- between opioid prescribing rates and overdoses when comparing data from each state. 

In addition, the rate of opioid prescribing is highest nationally for people 55 years and older, but that age group has the lowest rate.  

This lack of correlation between opioid overdoses and the volume of prescribed opioids is consistent internationally. In 2016, England prescribed the most opioids and saw the most overdose deaths in its history. However, the drug responsible for many of those deaths was heroin, not prescription opioids. 

There is a raging opioid crisis in West Africa where, despite a low prescription rate, the number of overdoses has surged

In 2018, Scotland's drug overdose rate exceeded that of the United States -- largely because of heroin. There is no evidence of an overall increase in opioid prescribing in Scotland. 

No Simple Answers to the Opioid Crisis

It is clear that the data does not support a simple answer to the opioid crisis. Focusing all of our efforts on decreasing the supply of prescriptions will not solve the problem and is already creating unintended consequences.

In fact, cocaine and methamphetamine were involved in more overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2018 than prescription opioids. As the supply of prescription opioids has decreased due to the policies of the last few years, people have moved from prescription opioids to other illicit drugs.

The solution to the opioid crisis must be multi-pronged. Overprescribing played a role in causing the crisis, but sociological factors appear to have driven the demand. We must consider what prompts people to turn to drugs in despair. A recent study published in SSM-Population shows job loss bears a significant correlation to opioid-caused deaths.

In addition, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton (recipient of the 2015 Nobel prize in economics) showed mortality from substance use was linked to declining economic opportunity and financial insecurity.

Solving the drug crisis will not be easy. However, the disenfranchised members of our most impoverished communities deserve viable solutions to their problems. It is crucial to understand the degree to which job loss and hopelessness contribute to the drug problem.

Reputable data proves that the volume of opioids prescribed is not solely, or even primarily, responsible for the opioid crisis. Let’s focus on what is responsible.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary, “It Hurts Until You Die.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.