Why America's Opioid Crisis Is Really a Drug Crisis

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new report from the CDC challenges much of the conventional thinking about the opioid crisis, particularly the role played by prescription opioids. Other medications can be even more risky.

For example, twice as many Americans overdosed on the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam (Xanax) in 2017 than those who died after taking hydrocodone (Vicodin).

Gabapentin (Neurontin), a pain reliever thought to be safer than opioids, was linked to more fatal overdoses than tramadol (Ultram).

And here’s a shocker: the antihistamine diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is the 10th deadliest drug in the United States.

CDC researchers say illicit fentanyl, heroin and cocaine were involved in far more overdoses than any opioid medication. And methadone, an addiction treatment drug that’s supposed to prevent overdoses, was linked to more drug deaths than hydrocodone.

Only three opioid pain medications — oxycodone, morphine and hydrocodone — made the top 10 list of drugs involved in 2017 overdoses.



CDC researchers used a text analysis to scan electronic death certificates to find which drugs were most commonly involved in overdoses. The methodology is imperfect, since it includes drugs that were not necessarily the cause of death, but it provides a more thorough picture of which drugs are driving America’s overdose crisis.

The analysis also uncovered distinct regional differences. Deaths from heroin in 2017 were highest in New England, New York, and the mid-Atlantic states, while methamphetamine was the deadliest drug in most of the West, Southwest and Mountain states.

The 2017 analysis is likely already dated, as counterfeit medications made with illicit fentanyl have caused hundreds of overdose deaths this year on the west coast, from San Diego to Seattle.     

Doctors Targeted for Opioid Prescribing

While legal prescription opioids are not involved in most drug overdoses, they continue to be the focus of the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies, which mine prescription drug databases looking for signs of suspicious prescribing.

We reported this week on the case of a California pain doctor who paid a $125,000 fine to settle DOJ allegations that he “illegally prescribed opioids.”

“It was extortion and there’s nothing I was able to do about it. It’s sad and pathetic,” said Dr. Roger Kassendorf.

Federal prosecutors built their case against Kassendorf by analyzing prescription data to identify five of his patients who were on relatively high doses of opioids. None of the five were harmed or overdosed while under the care of Kassendorf, who admits his medical records could have been better. He settled to avoid a more expensive court fight.

It’s a familiar story to other doctors who’ve been targeted by regulators or law enforcement.

“If you study every board case and every indictment, they claim inadequate medical records. It’s their fall back in every case, so in case they lose on the facts, they can save face by being the documentation police,” said Dr. Mark Ibsen, a Montana primary care physician. “As with overprescribing, they never define what under-documentation is.”

Ibsen was initially accused by the Montana medical board of overprescribing opioids, but his medical license was suspended for inadequate medical records. Ibsen had to go to court to get the suspension overturned.

“The prescription drug registry is an excellent document in support of the physician. Given that it is a database available to all physicians in each state, it is hard to claim inadequate documentation for any physician,” Ibsen said.

“There are many doctors and nurse practitioners targeted by law enforcement solely because of the amount of opioids they prescribe. This is inappropriate. No one can assess the quality of care by just looking at the amount of drugs a provider prescribes,” says Dr. Lynn Webster, a pain management specialist and PNN columnist. 

“Providers are often forced to accept plea agreements to avoid incarceration, because they don't have the resources to fight the system. They will often do this to protect their families. There are bad doctors who should be put away, but most are trying to do the best they can within a system that is biased against people in pain and opioids.”

The pressure on physicians is so intense that many have lowered doses or stopped prescribing opioids altogether. That’s forcing pain patients to seek treatment with other doctors — who then run the risk of being flagged as a “high prescriber” if they accept new patients who need opioids.