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.

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 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.

CDC: Still Not Enough Naloxone   

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Trump Administration is stepping up efforts to increase prescribing of naloxone, an overdose recovery drug credited with saving thousands of lives.

Although naloxone prescriptions have increased dramatically, a new CDC Vital Signs report estimates that nearly 9 million additional prescriptions could have been dispensed last year if every patient with a high-dose opioid prescription was offered naloxone.  Patients are considered “high risk” if they take an opioid dose of 50 morphine milligram equivalent (MME) or more per day.

Naloxone has been used for years by first responders and emergency medical providers to revive overdose victims. Current efforts are focused on expanding access to the drug by prescribing it directly to patients considered at risk of an overdose.

In 2018, CDC researchers say only one naloxone prescription was dispensed for every 70 high-dose opioid prescriptions nationwide. Naloxone “under-prescribing” was even more acute in rural counties, which are nearly three times more likely to be ranked low in naloxone dispensing than metropolitan counties.

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“It is clear from the data that there is still much needed education around the important role naloxone plays in reducing overdose deaths. The time is now to ensure all individuals who are prescribed high-dose opioids also receive naloxone as a potential life-saving intervention,” CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, said in a statement.

Ironically, federal policies contribute to the under-prescribing. In 2018, most (71%) Medicare prescriptions for naloxone required a copay, compared to 42% for commercial insurance.

In January, the Food and Drug Administration encouraged drug makers to make naloxone available over-the-counter without a prescription. The FDA even developed an OTC label for Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray that sells for about $135. Seven months later, the FDA could not confirm to PNN that any company had submitted an application for an OTC version of naloxone.

Last year the Department of Health and Human Services released guidance urging doctors to “strongly consider” prescribing naloxone to patients on any dose of opioids when they also have respiratory conditions or obstructive sleep apnea, are co-prescribed benzodiazepines, have a mental health or substance abuse disorder, or a history of illegal drug use or prescription opioid misuse.

Many states are also taking steps to increase naloxone prescribing. California now requires doctors to “offer” naloxone prescriptions to pain patients deemed at high risk of an overdose. State law does not make the prescriptions mandatory, yet some patients say they were “blackmailed” by pharmacists who refused to fill their opioid scripts unless naloxone was also purchased. Patients around the country report similar experiences.   

Unintended Consequences

The drumbeat for naloxone comes at a time when sales are already booming. There were 556,000 naloxone prescriptions in 2018, twice as many as in 2017.

There’s no doubt naloxone saves lives, but some researchers say the drug has had little effect on the overdose crisis and may in fact be making it worse. In a recent study published by SSRN, two economics professors warned of “unintended consequences” if naloxone becomes more widely available.

“We expect these unintended consequences to occur through two channels. First, the reduced risk of death makes opioid abuse more appealing, leading some to increase their opioid use — or use more potent forms of the drug — when they have naloxone as a safety net. Some of those abusers may become criminally active to fund their increased drug use,” wrote Jennifer Doleac, PhD, Texas A&M University, and co-author Anita Mukherjee, PhD, University of Wisconsin.

“Furthermore, expanding naloxone access might not in fact reduce mortality. Though the risk of death per opioid use falls, an increase in the number or potency of uses means the expected effect on mortality is ambiguous.”

The researchers said there were anecdotal reports of “naloxone parties” where attendees used heroin and prescription opioids to get high knowing they could be revived. News reports have also quoted first responders who are frustrated that the same opioid abusers “are saved again and again by naloxone without getting treatment.”

Would Decriminalization Solve the Overdose Crisis?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Vancouver, British Columbia was the first major North American city to be hit by the overdose crisis. In 2016, after a wave of overdose deaths involving illicit fentanyl and even more deadly synthetic opioids like carfentanil, the western Canadian province declared a public health emergency.

Despite efforts to decrease the supply of prescription opioids in BC, over 3,600 more people have overdosed since the emergency was declared, with fentanyl detected in 87% of the deaths last year.

So when BC’s largest healthcare system recommends some radical solutions to the overdose crisis, it’s worth noting. Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) released a report last month recommending that illegal drugs be decriminalized and that drug users be given access to prescription opioids as an alternative to the black market.

"Legalization and regulation of all psychoactive substances would reduce people's dependence on the toxic illegal supply, criminal drug trafficking and illegal activities that people with addictions must engage in to finance their drug use," said Dr. Patricia Daly, VCH’s chief medical health officer.  

Some Canadian drug policy experts think the idea makes sense.

"The illegal market is an absolute toxic mess right now," Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, told the CBC. "It's really in line with consumer protection strategy ... just like we do with every other substance that we ingest, whether it be food or drugs."

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Also notable about the VCH report is that – unlike most regulators and politicians in Canada and the U.S. – prescription opioids are not singled out as the root cause of the overdose crisis. Instead, opioid medication is seen as part of the solution.

The report recommends pilot programs to see if prescription fentanyl and other opioid medications made available at supervised consumption sites could help high-risk illicit drug users “transition” to legal opioids.

“Piloting legal access to opioids is different from OAT (opioid agonist therapy) as treatment and would be low-barrier and flexible. Initial pilots would include observation of consumption, followed by pilots allowing distribution of opioids for people to take away for later consumption,” the report recommends.

The idea is controversial, but some doctors are warming up to it. A pilot program recently began at a Vancouver clinic, where hydromorphone tablets are given to about 50 patients who ingest them on site under staff supervision. In Ontario, over 400 healthcare providers and researchers recently signed an open letter asking that high dose injectable hydromorphone be made widely available to illicit drug users.

Substance Abuse and Socioeconomic Problems

The primary cause of the opioid crisis, according to the VCH report, is a “complex interaction” of socioeconomic problems, such as unemployment and homelessness, combined with substance abuse and an increasingly dangerous black market supply.

VCH analyzed the deaths of 424 overdose victims from 2017 and found that less than half (45%) even sought treatment for acute or chronic pain. They were far more likely to be unemployed (72%) and have a substance abuse problem (84%). About four out of ten overdose victims used opioids, alcohol or stimulants daily.

“Most of those who died used multiple substances including opioids, alcohol and stimulants such as cocaine and crystal meth. A significant percentage of those who died of opioid overdoses had primary alcohol use disorder and/or stimulant use disorder,” the report found.

Importantly, most of those who died were no strangers to the healthcare system. The vast majority (77%) had seen a healthcare provider in the year before they overdosed and one out of five (21%) had seen a provider a week before their death. Six out of ten (59%) had received Suboxone or methadone to treat opioid addiction, but the medications were either not effective or they dropped out of treatment.

In addition to decriminalization, the VCH report recommends improving access to addiction treatment, better substance abuse training of healthcare providers, and increased access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone.

Addiction and the 2020 Presidential Race

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

I found the recent story about Hunter Biden's drug and alcohol problems disturbing, not because he has an addiction — there's no shame in that — but because of the way the media tiptoes around the problem.

There seems be some reluctance to discuss Hunter's problem because of the way it may affect his father – former Vice President Joe Biden – and Biden’s bid for the presidency in 2020. To me, this illustrates a serious barrier to addressing the terrible disease of addiction.

Drugs, Politicians and Their Families

Marijuana is not considered a hard drug today, but it was considered a serious drug of abuse 27 years ago, when President Bill Clinton admitted he had used it. The stigma attached to using marijuana at the time was such that he disingenuously claimed he didn't inhale.

Of course, Clinton wasn't the only president who used or abused chemicals. Nor was he the only president whose reputation took a hit when his drug use was exposed to the public:

President Richard Nixon was reported to have an alcohol problem that worsened as his presidency neared its end.

President George W. Bush reportedly used cocaine in his youth and admitted “drinking too much.” ABC News even polled voters to find out whether his cocaine use might affect their willingness to vote for him.

President Barack Obama admitted that he used marijuana and cocaine. He was also a cigarette smoker with a nicotine addiction, and dealt with media inquiries about his attempts to quit throughout his presidency.

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Hunter Biden is not the only family member of a presidential candidate with addiction.

Jeb Bush's daughter, Noelle Bush, had a drug problem. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara de Blasio, abused alcohol and drugs while dealing with depression. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's father has struggled with alcohol his whole life. And President Trump’s brother, Fred Trump, Jr., died of complications related to alcoholism, which contributes to an estimated 88,000 deaths per year.

What Do Candidates Know?

Clearly, the endemic nature of addiction in our culture means that we should be interested in how the candidates deal with the presence of drugs in their lives. Are they able to talk openly about drug use instead of letting it remain a dark and shameful secret? Are they compassionate and supportive of family members who struggle?

To what extent do they personally use drugs and alcohol in daily life? And by extension, how well do they cope with stress? These are relevant, appropriate questions for candidates auditioning for a job that impacts the entire world.

It would be inappropriate to vote for a candidate solely on the basis of whether or not their loved ones struggle with addiction. But one criteria we can use for voting is a candidate’s positions on the critical issue of addiction in America. Here is how I would evaluate a candidate:

1) How much awareness do they demonstrate on the basic issues, including:

  • Do they know the difference in the prevalence of prescription opioid vs. illicit opioid abuse?

  • Do they know that addiction is not determined by the drug, but by genetic and environmental factors?

  • Do they know that the volume of pills prescribed to people in various parts of the country does not determine the number of overdose deaths?

  • Do they know that the prevalence of overdose deaths correlates with the loss of jobs and lack of income opportunity?

2) Will they de-stigmatize the disease of addiction by:

  • Decriminalizing the use of drugs?

  • Acknowledging addiction is a disease?

  • Understanding that babies cannot be born addicted?

  • Educating people that physical dependence and withdrawal can occur without addiction?

3) Do they favor access to substance abuse treatment in a timely fashion for everyone who needs it, regardless of their ability to pay?

4) Will they advocate for people in pain to receive opioid therapy when appropriate at the dose determined by their provider, rather than by the government?

5) Will they acknowledge the unintended consequences of the CDC opioid prescribing guideline?

Shining a Light on Addiction

The ideal candidate should recognize the tragedies associated with all addictions, not just with prescription opioids. He or she must recognize that addiction is part of being human, and that some people are more vulnerable to addiction than others, just as some people are more vulnerable to developing cancer or heart disease.

Whoever becomes or remains our president must shine the light of information on addiction, rather than hide it in the darkness of misinformation, shame and denial. 

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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.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

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.