Stop Demonizing the ‘Holy Trinity’     

Lynn Kivell Ashcraft, Guest Columnist    

If we are to have any hope of a rational, scientific discussion about the issues involved in both pain management and addiction treatment, we need to end patient shaming and the use of sensational language that has no basis in clinical practice.

First on my list is to stop using the term “Holy Trinity” when referring to the use of multiple medication classes to manage pain. It is a sensational propagandizing use of terminology that has no place in any meaningful clinical discussion.

Holy Trinity was a term coined by law enforcement when discussing the behavior of addicts. The original Holy Trinity – the so-called “Houston Cocktail” -- referred to the simultaneous ingestion of the short acting drugs hydrocodone (Vicodin), alprazolam (Xanax) and carisoprodol (Soma) by addicts. Other combinations of opioids, muscle relaxants and anti-anxiety drugs such as benzodiazepines are also used.

“The cocktail is commonly known on the black market as the ‘holy trinity’ and is particularly sought-after by addicts, but is also particularly dangerous,” is how the DEA describes the drugs in criminal complaints, search warrants and training guides.  

SOURCE: DEA TRAINING GUIDE

SOURCE: DEA TRAINING GUIDE

Taken together, the three drugs can be risky and cause respiratory depression, overdose and death. But when used under medical supervision, they enable individuals with painful and disabling conditions to improve their quality of life and restore bodily functions.

Holy Trinity was never used originally to refer to any medication combination prescribed by physicians caring for pain patients. But with the advent of the opioid crisis, the term is being used as a scare tactic by law enforcement and even some medical providers to deny patients a combination of medications previously used successfully.

The unintended consequence of this careless usage has been the deaths and needless renewal of pain and disability for patients who were being safely prescribed these medications.  

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for chronic severe centralized pain. In fact, the current Pain Management and Dosing Guide from the American Pain Society lists opioids plus other central nervous system depressants and valium (a diazepine) as potential treatments for neuropathic pain.

It is well acknowledged that successful treatment often requires polypharmacy regimens tailored to the needs of individual patients to achieve pain relief and provide quality of life. The potential risks of using multiple medications can be reduced by prescribing both long-acting forms of these drugs and by directing patients to take them separately. 

To use the Holy Trinity as an inflammatory term is to demonize certain medications that have been abused by addicts while being used successfully by intractable pain patients. The use of this derogatory term has caused the undeserved transference of the deeply held negative societal bias against “addicts” onto some of the frailest and medically complex patients, many of whom are struggling to achieve some quality of life. 

According to the CDC, about 20 percent of adults in the U.S. have chronic pain and 8 percent have severe “high impact” chronic pain that frequently limits their life or work activities. The 2011 Institute of Medicine report puts the number of Americans with pain at 100 million, which is more than those living with diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined.

The difference between the two reports highlights some of the issues with using and understanding statistics.  However, no matter which report you use, both numbers represent a staggering number of Americans living in pain who deserve effective treatment.

Let’s lose the term Holy Trinity and allow doctors to prescribe whatever medications they deem necessary for the restoration of function and the relief of pain in their patients. Name calling and the use of disrespectful terminology doesn’t solve either the problem of addiction or the problem of pain.

LBKA_04SEP2019.jpg

Lynn Kivell Ashcraft is an Analytic Software Consultant and writer who lives in Arizona. Lynn has lived with chronic intractable pain for almost 30 years and works with Dr. Forest Tennant as part of the Arachnoiditis Research and Education Project. 

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

DEA Proposes More Cuts in Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

For the fourth consecutive year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is proposing steep cuts in the supply of hydrocodone, oxycodone and three other opioid painkillers classified as Schedule II controlled substances.

In a notice published today in the Federal Register, the DEA proposes to reduce production quotas for hydrocodone by 19 percent and oxycodone by 9 percent in 2020. The supply of hydromorphone, oxymorphone, and fentanyl would also be cut.

“The aggregate production quota set by DEA each calendar year ensures that patients have the medicines they need while also reducing excess production of controlled prescription drugs that can be diverted and misused,” acting DEA Administrator Uttam Dhillon said in a statement.

“DEA takes seriously its obligations to both protect the public from illicit drug trafficking and ensure adequate supplies to meet the legitimate needs of patients and researchers for these substances.”

In setting annual production quotas for controlled substances, DEA considers various factors such as medical need, estimates of retail consumption based on prescriptions, and forecasts from opioid manufacturers. Added to the mix this year is diversion.

6075_dea.jpg

The five opioids being cut are subject to special scrutiny under the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act, known as the SUPPORT Act, which was signed into law by President Trump on October 24, 2018. The law requires DEA to estimate the amount of diversion of the five opioids and “make appropriate quota reductions.”

The agency estimated that 57 kilograms – about 125 pounds – of oxycodone were diverted or stolen in 2018, along with 24 kilograms (53 pounds) of hydrocodone. There was diversion of relatively small amounts of fentanyl, hydromorphone and oxymorphone last year.   

Cuts Began in 2016

The DEA first began cutting the supply of opioids in 2016 during the Obama administration and the trend has accelerated under President Trump, who pledged to reduce the supply of opioids by a third by 2021.

If approved, the 2020 production quotas would amount to a 60 percent decrease in the supply of hydrocodone since 2016 and a 48 percent cut in the supply of oxycodone.

While overdoses involving prescription opioids have been declining, they’ve been offset by a growing number of deaths attributed to illicit fentanyl, heroin and other street drugs. “Mexican Oxy” – counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl – are being trafficked throughout the United States and are blamed for overdoses from New York City to San Diego.

In addition to the five opioids, the DEA is setting production quotas on more than 250 Schedule I and II controlled substances. The agency is proposing to increase the amount of marijuana that can be produced for research by almost a third, from 2,450 kilograms in 2019 to 3,200 kilograms -- almost triple what it was in 2018. The increase reflects growing interest in marijuana research.

Public comments on the DEA proposal will be accepted until October 10. To make a comment online, click here. The agency will publish another notice later in the year on its final decision and begin informing drug manufacturers of their quota allotment.

Lessons from the Opioid Database

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Last month The Washington Post made public for the first time a DEA database of opioid prescribing that shows “the path of every single pain pill” sold in the United States from 2006 to 2012.

The Post’s analysis showed that 76 billion pills flowed through the country and nearly 100,000 fatal overdoses occurred over a seven-year period.

Biospace explained that opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers “allowed the drugs to reach the streets of communities large and small, despite persistent red flags that those pills were being sold in apparent violation of federal law and diverted to the black market.”

bigstock-a-glass-head-filled-with-many--47257918.jpg

The first lesson from the database seems obvious. Too many pills were prescribed, with opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers failing to report suspicious orders and government agencies failing to oversee the prescription opioid supply.

“If you don’t start millions of opioid-naive people on opioids they don’t need, it translates … in the longer term into fewer overdoses,” Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys told the Post.

But this misses a key lesson. Although no drug should ever be used when it is not needed, this leaves open the obvious and essential question: How do we reduce risks in people who do need opioids?

We cannot ban opioids completely without returning to pre-Civil War medicine. But each year we have millions of car crashes, severe battlefield and workplace injuries, new cases of cancer, major surgeries and devastating long-term illness.

In the many commentaries on the opioid database, little has been said about improving prescribing safety. We need better ways to use opioids safely because sometimes we just don’t have any other option.

If it is true, as Julie Croft, an Oklahoma addiction treatment provider wrote, “We are all just one accident away from becoming addicted to painkillers” -- then we had better rapidly improve how we use opioids or come up with better alternatives since we have millions of accidents annually.

To this end, Yale and the Mayo Clinic were recently awarded a $5.3 million FDA grant to study patients with acute pain and their use of opioids.

Reduced Prescribing May Not Be Enough

The next lesson in the database is vulnerability to substance abuse. Dennis Scanlon, PhD, and Christopher S. Hollenbeak, PhD, note in the American Journal of Managed Care, that “although using government or regulatory mechanisms to prevent or significantly curb the supply of addictive narcotics is certainly valuable, there is also value in preventing or reducing addiction at its core.”

In other words, policies that reduce opioid prescribing may be helpful, but they may also not be enough. We need better tools and greater understanding of opioid prescribing. The National Institute of Drug Abuse currently estimates that 8% of people on long-term opioid therapy develop some form of opioid use disorder, while The BMJ estimates that less than 1% of surgical patients receiving opioids face a similar fate. These numbers may seem low, but every effort should be made to reduce them.

As bioethicist Travis Reider states in his book “In Pain” about his personal struggle with opioids: “The bottom line is that we are not, by and large, acting decisively in an evidence-based way to tackle the myriad problems raised by opioids. Although we don’t know everything about how to turn the corner on this crisis, we know a lot, and we’re simply not doing it.”

The last essential lesson from the opioid database is that opioid abuse and addiction came long before the crisis. The clichéd response that we “cannot arrest our way” out of the crisis needs to be extended to we “cannot simply restrict our way out” either. We need better prevention and early intervention for opioid use disorder, and improved management of the opioid supply chain so as to prevent theft and diversion.

The crisis is a fast-moving target, with prescription opioid levels having dropped significantly since 2012. Overdoses involving prescription opioids have also fallen, while deaths linked to illicit opioids like fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine are rising sharply. We will need far more than a prescribing database to guide policy moving forward.

Roger Chriss.jpg

Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.

Lawyer Calls for DOJ to End ‘Indiscriminate Raids’ on Doctors

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

In recent years, hundreds of physicians, pharmacists and addiction treatment doctors have had their offices raided and searched by DEA agents.

Many of the raids were orchestrated by the Justice Department’s Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, a special team of investigators created in 2017 to mine opioid prescribing data to identify suspicious orders and practices. The investigations have resulted in the high-profile arrests of healthcare providers for fraud and risky opioid prescribing.

"If you're a doctor and you want to act like a drug dealer, we're going to treat you like one. And sometimes the only difference between a doctor and a drug dealer is a white coat," U.S. Attorney Jay Town said about a federal takedown in April that resulted in charges against 60 practitioners in seven states.

Rarely publicized are the cases where criminal charges are never filed because the evidence against doctors is weak or non-existent.

DEA2.jpg

“It’s quite frustrating to see how their careers were ruined even though they never faced criminal charges. That’s because the government was incapable of bringing credible charges against them,” says attorney Michael Barnes, who is managing partner at DCBA Law & Policy, a law firm that advises healthcare providers. “When I read a criminal complaint, what I would see as ‘best practices’ is construed as criminal exploitative behavior on the part of the prosecutors.

“There’s a heavy bias against medications to treat pain and opioid use disorder that is driving some of the aggressive enforcement actions. Also, an overzealousness combined with a lack of understanding of the practice of medicine.”

Barnes recently wrote an op/ed, published online by American University’s Washington College of Law, calling for an end to the DOJ’s “indiscriminate raids” on doctors.

“DOJ raids and searches of professionals’ homes and medical clinics interrupt the delivery of health care, put patients’ lives at risk, and unjustly destroy careers and livelihoods. They also create confusion and fear,” wrote Barnes. “Not all health care professionals subject to the DOJ’s searches and seizures are ‘dirty docs.’ In fact, some of them are nationally recognized leaders not just in pain management, but also in addiction medicine.” 

Barnes cites the case of Dr. Stuart Gitlow, an addiction psychiatrist whose Rhode Island home and office were raided by FBI agents in March 2018. Sixteen months later, the reasons for the raid remain unclear and Gitlow, the former president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, has not been charged with a crime.  

MICHAEL BARNES

MICHAEL BARNES

Neither has Dr. Forest Tennant. In November 2017, DEA agents raided the office and home of Tennant, a prominent California pain physician who was flagged for “very suspicious prescribing patterns.” In a search warrant, the 76-year old Tennant was depicted as the kingpin of a drug trafficking organization that spanned several states.

“I know based on my training and experience that patients traveling long distances to obtain controlled substance prescriptions is another ‘red flag’ of drug abuse and addiction,” wrote DEA investigator Stephanie Kolb, who led a two-year investigation of Tennant.

But Kolb, who was self-employed as a dog walker and pet groomer before she started working for the DEA in 2012, failed to note that Tennant only treated intractable pain patients, many from out-of-state, and often prescribed high doses of opioids because of their chronically poor health. Some patients were in palliative care and near death, and one committed suicide after learning of the raid, fearing she would lose access to opioid medication.

Tennant denies any wrongdoing and was never formally charged, but retired from clinical practice a few months after the raid.

“It’s hard to continue operating when they never closed my case, and so I’m going to retire and move on,” Tennant told PNN at the time. “That’s on the advice of both my lawyers and my doctors."

(Dr. Tennant and the Tennant Foundation have given financial support to Pain News Network and are currently sponsoring PNN’s Patient Resources section.)  

Biased Investigations

Barnes says the biases of some prosecutors extends to the expert witnesses they hire to help build their cases. The role of these witnesses is important because they help DOJ persuade judges to sign off on search warrants that are key to gathering evidence. It’s a lucrative sideline for some paid witnesses, who charge the government hundreds of dollars an hour for their time and expertise.

“Expert witnesses are eager to give DOJ business to get the expert witness fees, and they of course will help to spin the facts in a way that is prejudicial to the defendant,” Barnes said. “What we’re seeing here is people who are really not qualified to be making assessments of other practices serving as experts for the government.” 

bigstock-Find-doctor-icon-80963057(1).jpg

Dr. Timothy Munzing, a Kaiser Permanente family practice physician in California, has worked as a medical consultant for the DEA, FBI and DOJ on over 100 investigations, most of which involve prescriptions for opioids and other controlled substances.

According to GovTribe.com, which tracks payments to federal contractors, Munzing has been awarded nearly $1 million in DOJ contracts since 2017 and is currently working on nearly two dozen DEA investigations, mostly reviewing patient files and data from prescription drug monitoring programs.

It would be unusual for a family practice physician to treat an intractable pain patient without making a referral to a pain or palliative care specialist. But Munzing was one of the expert witnesses hired by the DEA to analyze Tennant’s prescribing.

“I find to a high level of certainty that after review of the medical records… that Dr. Tennant failed to meet the requirements in prescribing these dangerous medications,” Munzing wrote in an affidavit. “These prescribing patterns are highly suspicious for medication abuse/and or diversion. If the patients are actually using all the medications prescribed, they are at high risk for addiction, overdose, and death.”  

Munzing’s affidavit and the DEA search warrant identified no patients who were actually harmed while under Tennant’s care. As PNN reported, some patients found the allegation that they were selling their medication and funneling the profits back to Tennant laughable.      

“It’s like everything else they do. They don’t talk to any patients. They don’t talk to any doctors. They just go and throw all this stuff out there and making all these incriminations against people. They don’t have any evidence that I’ve sold anything. It’s just ludicrous,” said Ryle Holder, a Tennant patient who lives in Georgia.  

Barnes says the bias against opioid prescribing “is inherent in the work of many of the investigators and prosecutors.”

“Then there is the incompetence as it relates to many of the law enforcement officers not having the medical expertise to make judgements of a medical nature. And then, when they do consult with the experts, those experts are typically trying to please their clients and getting repeat business as a result,” he told PNN. 

State Medical Boards

To bring more expertise into investigations of healthcare providers, Barnes is proposing that state medical boards play a more prominent role. He wants Congress to amend federal law to require DOJ investigators and prosecutors to get a referral from a state licensing board before investigating a practitioner for misconduct. Similar laws at the state level would also need to be changed to require state and local law enforcement to get a referral from a medical licensing board.

To make sure complaints are handled in a timely manner, Barnes says federal funds should be used to bolster the budgets of state licensing boards so they can investigate allegations of misconduct.  

“There are some detractors who say medical boards didn’t do an adequate job leading up to the overdose crisis. But the reality is neither did law enforcement,” Barnes says. “The medical boards could get up to speed and make these assessments on medical needs and patient care to make sure that healthcare providers can be assessed with medical expertise, rather than law enforcement trying to guess about standard of care and best practices.”

“Making it more difficult for law enforcement to investigate potential diversion of dangerous and addictive controlled substances, including powerful painkillers, is probably not going to happen right now,” says DEA spokesman Rusty Payne.

This idea that people need to worry about the DEA hiding in the bushes if they write an oxycodone prescription is ridiculous.
— Rusty Payne, DEA spokesman

Payne points out the DEA is both a law enforcement and regulatory agency, one that oversees 1.3 million practitioners licensed to prescribe controlled substances. He says enforcement actions are relatively rare and not “indiscriminate” as Barnes suggests.

“The numbers are incredibly low. It is a very, very, very small number.  So this idea that people need to worry about the DEA hiding in the bushes if they write an oxycodone prescription is ridiculous,” he told PNN. “We don’t have the resources. We don’t track individual prescriptions. We look for patterns and large-scale significant diversion.”  

Getting state medical boards involved, according to Payne, is not a good idea.

“I don’t think making it harder for us to scrutinize those that are acting outside the law is in anyone’s best interest,” he said.

But Barnes’ proposal makes sense, according to Dr. Lynn Webster, a PNN columnist and former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. 

“Barnes makes a sensible recommendation. If the law enforcement suspects a provider is not complying with the law, then the first step should be a referral to the medical board where the provider can be evaluated by their peers,” Webster said. “If a doctor goes to trial, they will not be evaluated by their peers. That is not the way the justice system is supposed to work.” 

Webster was once the target of a federal investigation of his opioid prescribing practices and DEA agents raided his Utah pain clinic in 2010. Four years later, the DOJ said it would not prosecute Webster, who said his “reputation was tarnished forever.”  

“DEA investigations are often designed to entrap a provider on technicalities.  Even if an investigation never leads to any charges the doctor's reputation is damaged.  In the court of public opinion an investigation must mean something was wrong,” Webster said. 

Pharmacists and Rx Wholesalers Charged with Drug Trafficking

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Major pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt and Johnson & Johnson are often singled out for their role in the nation’s opioid crisis. But wholesalers, pharmacies and other parts of the drug distribution system are also coming under scrutiny.

This week the former president and former compliance officer for an Ohio drug distributor and two West Virginia pharmacists were arrested after being indicted for conspiring to distribute controlled substances.

The company, Miami-Luken, supplied drugs to over 200 pharmacies in Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana and Tennessee, generating over $173 million in sales annually.

Prosecutors say Miami-Luken distributed opioid pain medication “outside the scope of professional practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose.”

Between 2011 and 2015, the company allegedly ignored “obvious signs of abuse” by distributing more than 2.3 million oxycodone pills and 2.6 million hydrocodone pills to a pharmacy in Oceana, West Virginia, a town of less than 1,400 people.

bigstock-Corrupt-Male-Doctor-120540008.jpg

From 2008 to 2011, over 3.7 million hydrocodone pills were supplied by Miami-Luken to a pharmacy in Kermit, West Virginia, which has about 400 people.

Criminal Charges Rare

According to CNN, it’s only the second time a drug distributor has been criminally charged with illegally distributing opioid painkillers. In April, two former executives of the Rochester Drug Co-Operative in upstate New York were charged with drug trafficking for failing the stop suspicious orders for opioids.

In previous cases, wholesalers, pharmacies and even hospitals paid heavy fines for not being alert to suspicious activity. Last year, for example, Effingham Health System of Georgia agreed to pay a $4.1 million settlement after the DEA uncovered the diversion of tens of thousands of oxycodone tablets from its hospital.

In 2017, CVS Health agreed to pay a $5 million fine to settle allegations that several CVS pharmacies in California failed to detect thefts of hydrocodone. In 2015, CVS paid a $22 million fine because two of its Florida pharmacies filled bogus prescriptions for opioids.  

Cardinal Health, one of the nation’s largest drug wholesalers, was fined $34 million by the DEA in 2012 after it failed to report suspicious orders for hydrocodone at a Florida distribution facility.

The list goes on and on. The point is that no one went to prison or was criminally charged in any of these cases. Which may be about to change. The four defendants in the Miami-Luken case face up to 20 years in prison. 

“Today’s arrests should be a wakeup call to distributors and pharmacists who are allowing opioid prescription pills to be illegally sold and dispensed from their facilities,” said DEA Assistant Administrator John Martin. “These actions will not be tolerated by the DEA, and they will be brought to justice.”

Patients Caught in the Middle

Big fines and prison terms may be appropriate, but not if they result in legitimate patients with legitimate prescriptions being denied access to opioids.  That’s what happened in April to a California woman with Stage 4 terminal breast cancer, who couldn’t get a prescription filled for Norco at her local Rite Aid pharmacy.  

April Doyle’s tearful, 6-minute video about her experience went viral online, and she wound up getting apologies from a Rite Aid vice-president, the store manager and even the pharmacist who sent her away without pain medication.

Rite-Aid’s caution in filling opioid prescriptions may have stemmed from being added a few months earlier as a defendant in New York City’s opioid lawsuit (along with CVS, Walgreens and Walmart) by the law firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy.  

“Many plaintiffs in opioid lawsuits are amending their complaints to include these retailers because they failed to monitor the drugs sold out of their pharmacy windows,” Simmons Hanly said in a statement.

The Washington Post released a report this week on how drug companies, wholesalers and pharmacies “saturated the country” with 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills from 2006 through 2012. Those pills, according to the Post, “fueled the prescription opioid epidemic” and resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths.

But as Jeffrey Singer points out in Cato at Liberty, the Post is contributing to a false narrative about the opioid crisis by pinning the blame on prescription opioids, while largely ignoring the fact that most deaths are caused by illicit drugs such as heroin and illicit fentanyl.

“The overdose problem has never been a product of doctors treating patients for pain. It has always been a product of (a growing population of) nonmedical users accessing drugs in a dangerous black market fueled by drug prohibition,” Singer wrote.  “The continued obsession about the number of pain pills being prescribed causes patients to go undertreated for their pain and will not make one IV drug user pull the needle out of their arm.”

Study Debunks Myths About Origins of Opioid Abuse

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s become a popular myth – and for some, a propaganda tool – to claim that opioid pain medication is a gateway drug to heroin and other street drugs.

An opioid education campaign called The Truth About Opioids – funded with taxpayer dollars from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy — declares in big bold letters on its website that “80% of heroin users started with a prescription painkiller.”

The 80% figure stems from a 2013 study that found four out of five new heroin users had previously abused prescription opioids by using them non-medically.

Importantly, the heroin users were not asked if they had a valid prescription for opioids or even where they got them – but that doesn’t stop federal agencies from citing the study as proof that illegal drug use often starts with a legal opioid prescription.

The Drug Enforcement Administration last year used the 80% figure to justify steep cuts in the supply of prescription opioids, claiming in the Federal Register that addicts often get hooked “after first obtaining these drugs from their health care providers.”

4of5-painkillers-rev1.png

“The 80% statistic is misleading and encourages faulty assumptions about the overdose crisis and medical care,” Roger Chriss explained in a PNN column last year.

A new study by researchers at Penn State University debunks the myth that the opioid crisis was driven primarily by doctors’ prescriptions. The researchers conducted a series of surveys and in-depth interviews with opioid abusers in southwestern Pennsylvania -- a region hard hit by opioid addiction -- asking detailed questions about their drug use.

The study was small – 125 people were surveyed and 30 of them were interviewed – but the findings provide a an important new insight into the origins of opioid abuse and the role played by painkillers.

"What emerged from our study -- and really emerged because we decided to do these qualitative interviews in addition to a survey component -- was a pretty different narrative than the national one,” said lead author Ashton Verdery, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology, demography and social data analytics at Penn State. "There's a lot about that narrative that I think is an overly simplistic way of thinking about this."

‘Opioids Were Never the First Drug’

Verdery and his colleagues found that over two-thirds of those interviewed (66.7%) first abused a prescription opioid that was given, bought or stolen from a friend or family member. Another 7% purchased the drugs from a stranger or dealer. Only one in four (26%) started by abusing opioid medication that was prescribed to them by a doctor.

“We found that most people initiated through a pattern of recreational use because of people around them. They got them from either siblings, friends or romantic partners," said Verdery. “Participants repeatedly reported having a peer or caregiver in their childhood who had a substance use problem. Stories from childhood of witnessing one of these people selling, preparing, or using drugs were very common. Being exposed to others’ substance use at an early age was often cited as a turning point for OMI (opioid misuse) and of drug use in general.”

And prescription opioids were not the gateway drugs they are often portrayed to be. Polysubstance abuse was common and usually began with drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, prescription sedatives and prescription stimulants.

“It is important to note that interviewees universally reported initiating OMI only after previously starting their substance use career with another drug (e.g., alcohol, marijuana, cocaine). Opioids were never the first drug used, suggesting that OMI is likely associated with being further along in one’s drug using career,” Verdery reported in the Journal of Addictive Studies.

Verdery says additional studies are needed on the origins of drug abuse and that researchers should focus on the role that other substances play in opioid addiction. Only then can proper steps be taken to prevent abuse and addiction before they start.

"We think that understanding this mechanism as a potential pathway is worth further consideration," said Verdery. "It's not just that people were prescribed painkillers from a doctor for a legitimate reason and, if we just crack down on the doctors who are prescribing in these borderline cases we can reduce the epidemic.”

Doctors Prosecuted for Opioid Prescribing Should Fight Back

(Editor’s note: In 2016, Dr. Mark Ibsen’s medical license was suspended by the Montana Board of Medical Examiners for his opioid prescribing practices. Two years later, the suspension was overturned by a judge who ruled that the board made numerous errors and deprived Ibsen of his legal right to due process.)

By Mark Ibsen, MD, Guest Columnist

The headlines are pretty typical: “60 Doctors Charged in Federal Opioid Sting.” The story that follows will include multiple damning allegations and innuendos, including a claim by prosecutors that they are “targeting the worst of the worst doctors.”

Sometimes there is a trial, but often the doctors plead guilty to lesser charges and give up their license rather than mount a lengthy and costly legal defense.

Why are doctors losing every case to their medical boards and DEA? Are there that many criminal doctors? If so, what happened to our profession?

I see a pattern emerging: A doctor sees patients and treats pain in the course of their practice. As other doctors give up prescribing opiates for fear of going to prison or losing their license, the ones left end up seeing more and more patients.

bigstock--157700663.jpg

They soon become the leading prescribers of opioids in their state and become suspect just based on the volume of opioids they prescribe.

Given that law enforcement and medical board investigators usually don’t have training in statistics (or medicine), they are unable to see that the number of pain patients remains the same, but there are fewer practitioners willing to treat them.

“The Criminalization of Medicine: America’s War on Doctors” was published in 2007, but is even more relevant today.   

“Physicians have been tried and given longer prison sentences than convicted murderers; many have lost their practices, their licenses to practice medicine, their homes, their savings and everything they own,” wrote author Ronald Libby. “Some have even committed suicide rather than face the public humiliation of being treated as criminals.”

Libby wrote over a decade ago about doctors’ homes and offices being raided, DEA agents posing as pain patients to entrap them, and law enforcement task forces being created to target doctors for fraud, kickbacks and drug diversion.

Sound familiar?

I was reviewing a case about a nurse practitioner in Michigan who recently had her license suspended because she prescribed opioids “contrary to CDC guidelines” and “ranked among Michigan’s highest-volume prescribers of commonly abused and diverted controlled substances.”

This unsubstantiated crap put out by the Michigan Board of Nursing and its investigator is unethical and immoral. It should lead to a mistrial in court or dismissal at hearings. 

Fight Fire With Fire

This is an Amber alert for physicians. While pejorative headlines contaminate the discourse, the prescriber’s reputation bleeds away. The Montana Board of Medical Examiners did this in my case, and since I knew that the board was relentlessly after my license for “overprescribing” opioids, I gave up any hope of fairness.

My proposal: Lawyers representing doctors must counter the negative headlines with their own, and doctors should use whatever goodwill is left to rally their staff and patients, counteracting the pressure to testify against the doctor. 

I used what was left of my bully pulpit to save my own license and freedom. How? My assistant assembled my patients in large crowds at my hearings. I also made myself available to the media to counter the narrative put out by Mike Fanning, the board’s attorney, who went so far as to publicly question my sanity.

Fanning’s title was special assistant Attorney General, which told me the medical board works for DOJ in my state. I knew this for sure when DEA agents came to my office and tried to intimidate me.

“Doctor Ibsen, you are risking your license and your freedom by treating patients like these.”

Patients like what?

“Patients who might divert their medicine.”

Might? Isn’t that everyone? What would you have me do?

“We can’t tell you, we’re not doctors.”

My plea to doctors: Let’s reinvent our defense. The DEA and medical boards have a formula. It’s winning. 

We need a new response: Fight back and hold on. Just like with any bully, reveal their game and fight fire with fire.

IMG_0793.jpg

Dr. Mark Ibsen continues to practice medicine in Montana, but focuses on medical marijuana as a treatment. He no longer prescribes opioids. Six of his former patients have died after losing access to Dr. Ibsen’s care, three by suicide.

Do you have a story you want to share on PNN? Send it 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.