By Pat Anson, Editor
There are signs – very tentative signs – that the U.S. is making progress in the so-called opioid epidemic. Attorney General Jeff Sessions alluded to some of them in a speech on Friday.
“New CDC preliminary data show that last fall, drug overdoses finally started to decline. Heroin overdose deaths declined steadily from June to October, as did overdose deaths from prescription opioids,” Sessions said at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver.
Overdoses from heroin and prescription opioids did indeed fall by about 4 percent during that five-month period, but what Sessions failed to mention is that deaths from illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids rose by 12 percent – more than making up for whatever gains were made in reducing deaths from heroin and painkillers.
From October 2016 to October 2017, the CDC estimates that 68,400 Americans died from drug overdoses, a 12% increase from the previous 12-month period.
So overdoses have not “finally started to decline” as Sessions claims. And the Attorney General, who once urged chronic pain sufferers to take two aspirin and “tough it out,” continues to blame prescription opioids for much of the nation’s drug problems.
“This (Justice) Department is going after drug companies, doctors, and pharmacists and others that violate the law,” Sessions said. “Since January 2017, we have charged more than 150 doctors and another 150 other medical personnel for opioid-related crimes. Sixteen of those doctors prescribed more than 20.3 million pills illegally.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration, which Sessions oversees, is also seeking a rule change that could lead to further tightening of the nation’s supply of opioid medication -- in addition to the 45% in production cuts the DEA ordered over the last two years. The DEA wants to change the rules so it can arbitrarily punish drug makers who fail to prevent their opioid products from being diverted and abused.
Sessions ‘Socially Irresponsible’
“I think they’re attacking it from the wrong end, to be candid with you,” says Tony Mack, the CEO and chairman of Virpax Pharmaceuticals. “Who is going to end up suffering is the real patients that have chronic pain and can’t get a hold of these opioids.”
Although Virpax is focused on developing non-opioid pain medication, Mack has a wealth of experience in opioid pharmaceuticals, having worked for Purdue Pharma, Endo and Novartis. In an unusually blunt interview for a drug company executive, Mack told PNN that Sessions’ focus on prescription opioids was “socially irresponsible.”
“I believe Attorney General Jeff Sessions needs to sit down and talk to some of these physicians who are pain specialists and understand that what he’s doing is going to put the chronic pain patient, the post-operative patient, and the patient that comes to the emergency room in serious jeopardy,” Mack said. “I think that Jeff Sessions is not educated well. I think he is picking on something that sounds good politically but doesn’t make sense socially. It’s socially irresponsible.”
Mack says pain patients would be caught in the middle if the DEA changes the opioid production rules and, for example, tells Purdue Pharma to stop selling OxyContin, its branded formulation of oxycodone.
“If you cut off that particular company, since they have more oxycodone out there than anyone, what will happen is patients will have to go to morphine or have to go to fentanyl,” Mack told PNN. “You’re not going to give patients the choices that they need to have in order to manage their pain. Not every single opioid works the same way for every single person. They all work differently."
Mack thinks the DEA’s earlier production cuts have contributed to nationwide shortages of IV opioid medications, which are used to treat hospital patients recovering from surgery and trauma.
“Absolutely, I do,” he said. “It’s just a domino effect to me. You’re going to send more patients home or you’re going to be postponing surgeries until they get opioids because they can’t do (surgeries) without it. It would be inhumane.”
Mack says efforts to limit opioid prescribing and production may have backfired, giving patients little choice but to turn to the black market for pain relief.
“I think they’re trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. They’re not thinking it through,” Mack said. “They’re probably going to increase the amount of (illegal) drugs out there. And patients aren’t going to try and get help, because they’re going to be on heroin. Not on a prescription medication. They’re going to be shooting up heroin.”
Lost in the debate over opioids and their role in the overdose crisis is this little known fact: A recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that psychotherapeutic drugs used to treat depression, anxiety and other mental disorders are now involved in more overdoses than any other class of medication. They include antidepressants, benzodiazepines, anti-psychotics, barbiturates and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) drugs such as Adderall. Over 25,000 overdoses in 2016 involved psychotherapeutic drugs. That compares to 17,087 deaths linked to opioid pain medication.