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.

Fake Norco Nearly Killed California Woman

By Pat Anson, Editor

An article published online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine shows just how easy it is for someone to be fooled – and nearly killed – by counterfeit pain medication.

It tells the story of an unnamed 41-year old California woman who treats her chronic back pain with regular doses of Norco, a prescription medication that combines acetaminophen and hydrocodone.

She was one of dozens of people who died or were hospitalized in northern California after ingesting counterfeit Norco bought on the street that was laced with illicit fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 stronger than morphine.

"Street Norco is almost indistinguishable from brand-name Norco in appearance but can be lethal," said lead author Patil Armenian, MD, of the University of California San Francisco-Fresno.

"This new street drug's toxicity led to an unexpected cluster of fentanyl deaths in California this spring. These deaths in our area combined with an emergency patient who was concerned about pill appearance and exceedingly sleepy after her usual dose of medication led to our investigation."

The woman in question suffers chronic pain from a herniated disc and normally buys the Norco illicitly, 2 to 3 tablets at a time. The article does not explain why she buys them off the street.

The woman felt sleepy and became unconscious within 30 minutes of taking three of the counterfeit tablets. She next remembered waking up in a hospital emergency room. She told hospital staff the pills had the markings of Norco, but were beige in color instead of the usual white.

A blood serum analysis revealed the woman had significant amounts of fentanyl and U-47700, another type of synthetic opioid. Neither drug is an ingredient in brand-name Norco.

“Toxic effects of these compounds are similar to those of other opioids, namely, miosis, respiratory depression, coma, and possible death. To our knowledge, this is the first reported opioid toxidrome case with confirmed serum concentration of U-47700,” said Armenian, adding that the woman was discharged from the hospital and has completely recovered.

“This case highlights that fentanyl-laced Norco is spreading to other regions and may contain psychoactive ingredients other than fentanyl, such as U-47700, prompting emergency providers to remain vigilant in their care.”

As Pain News Network has reported, the Drug Enforcement Administration is warning the U.S. faces an unprecedented “fentanyl crisis” that is growing worse as drug dealers ramp up production of counterfeit medication. Dozens of Americans have died this year after ingesting counterfeit versions of oxycodone, Norco and Xanax that are virtually indistinguishable from the real medications. Even a few milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal.

Fentanyl is legally prescribed in patches and lozenges to treat severe chronic pain, but the DEA said “hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescription drugs” laced with illicit fentanyl are on the black market. The agency predicts more fake pills will be manufactured because of heavy demand and the “enormous profit potential” of fake medication.

Canada’s Fentanyl Crisis

Canada – which has been dealing with its own fentanyl crisis – may provide a preview of what’s in store for the U.S. Overdose deaths from fentanyl have reached such an urgent level that British Columbia Premier Christy Clark asked the federal government last week to restrict access to pill presses and to start screening “all small packages” entering the province for fentanyl. 

Earlier this year British Columbia declared a public health emergency and adopted new opioid prescribing guidelines that are even more stringent than those released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

While the CDC’s guidelines are voluntary and intended only for primary care physicians, British Columbia’s guidelines are legally enforceable for all opioid prescribers because they set a “minimum standard of professional behaviour and ethical conduct.” The guidelines state that opioids should not be prescribed to treat headaches, fibromyalgia and low back pain.

In Ontario, the backlash against opioids has reached a point that palliative care doctors are worried they will no longer be able to give high doses to their patients – many of whom are dying from cancer and other chronic illnesses. Ontario’s Ministry of Health said public health plans next year would stop paying for high doses of hydromorphone, morphine and fentanyl patches.

“Our patients under palliative care deserve better than this,” Stephen Singh, MD, director of the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians, told The Globe and Mail, adding that he was “appalled” by the government’s decision.

Canadian Province Adopts CDC Guidelines

By Pat Anson, Editor

Less than three months after their adoption in the United States, the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines are now being implemented in Canada.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia has released new professional standards and guidelines that are closely modeled after the CDC’s guidelines.

One key difference is that while the CDC’s guidelines are “voluntary” and intended only for primary care physicians, British Columbia’s standards of care are legally enforceable for all opioid prescribers because they set a “minimum standard of professional behaviour and ethical conduct.”

“The public health crisis of prescription drug misuse has developed in part due to the prescribing of physicians. The profession has a collective ethical responsibility to mitigate its contribution to the problem of prescription drug misuse, particularly the over-prescribing of opioids, sedatives and stimulants,” the college said.

"Every physician is professionally responsible for the prescription that they provide to a patient."

Like the CDC guidelines, the college discourages the prescribing of opioids for chronic pain, but goes even further by saying they should not be used to treat three specific health conditions: headaches, fibromyalgia and low back pain.

Opioids for acute pain should be limited to three to seven days’ supply, and when prescribed for chronic pain should be limited to only a month’s supply at a time. British Columbia physicians are also warned not to prescribe opioids concurrently with benzodiazepines and other anxiety medication.

Doctors are also cautioned to carefully document their reasons for increasing doses over 50 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) per day and to avoid increasing the dose to over 90 MME per day.

The British Columbia standards are more strict than Canada’s national guidelines, which have not been revised since 2010, “leaving them out of date with current research associated with taking painkillers,” according to The Globe and Mail.

“While Canada’s guidelines for opioid-prescription are expected to be updated in January, the death toll is mounting too quickly to wait,” said the Toronto Star in an editorial urging Ontario’s College of Physicians and Surgeons to adopt guidelines similar to British Columbia’s.

“B.C. has shown the way for other provincial regulatory bodies. Colleges across the country, including Ontario’s, should follow its example and set informed rules now. Injudicious prescriptions have already destroyed the lives of too many Canadians.”

Like the United States, Canada is one of the top opioid prescribing countries in the world and is struggling with an “epidemic” of addiction and overdoses. A growing number of deaths, however, can be attributed to illegal opioids such as fentanyl and heroin, and it remains in doubt whether restricting access to prescription opioids will lessen the problem or only make it worse by forcing legitimate patients to turn to the streets for pain relief.

As Pain News Network has reported, Canadian drug dealers are now selling counterfeit painkillers laced with fentanyl, an opioid that is more potent and dangerous than most pain medications.

The Star sees the problem differently, blaming doctors for Canada's opioid problem.

“It’s hard to believe that a large part of the blame for Canada’s latest drug-addiction crisis lies not with dealers, but with doctors. That is the conclusion of a growing number of health experts across the country who say our ballooning opioid problem can’t be solved until physicians stem the flow of prescriptions for the highly addictive painkillers,” the newspaper said in its editorial.