How Government Shutdowns Worsen the Opioid Crisis

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

On October 26, 2017— a little bit more than a year ago — President Donald Trump declared that the opioid crisis was a national Public Health Emergency. Most Americans seemed to back his initiative to stop opioid abuse, and to reduce drug supply and demand.

However, it seems the recent 35-day government shutdown and Trump's desire to build a border wall have been at cross-purposes with his concern about addressing the opioid crisis.

Two key aspects of Trump’s opioid plan were prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder. Prevention, in part, means reducing the supply. However, everything in the supply is not equally problematic.

Opioids fall into two major categories: those that are prescribed and those that are smuggled into the United States. The number of overdoses associated with prescription opioids has remained essentially unchanged since 2011, while the number of opioid overdoses due to illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surged from 3,000 in 2013 to more than 29,000 in 2017. Most of these drugs originate in China.

One of Trump's major arguments for building a wall is that most drugs that kill Americans are coming over the southern border from Mexico. However, that conflicts with the final report of his opioid commission, which found that "we are losing this fight predominately through China."

Mexican cartels do smuggle illicit opioids across the southern border in passenger vehicles and tractor trailers, often at legal points of entry. Heroin and fentanyl are also smuggled into the U.S. by sea and air or through the mail. A physical barrier doesn’t block any of these types of entry.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with inspecting mail to prevent drug smuggling. Before the government shutdown, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb was calling for more postal inspectors to intercept shipments of opioids. He wanted the government to be able to inspect 100,000 suspicious packages per year, but that would have required double the number of personnel that he had.

Government shutdowns handicap those efforts because it is difficult to hire during shutdowns. It can be challenging just to retain the employees you already have.

The Department of Homeland Security works with the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to patrol the South Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea to stop drug smuggling. These efforts may have been impeded during the shutdown, because some of these "essential" employees had to decide whether to work without pay or call in sick. We can assume that some of them chose the latter course of action. Some government employees may be looking for other jobs because they want a reliable paycheck.

Ironically, due to increased scrutiny at the border, drug smugglers have gotten more creative, increasing their use of tunnels, boats, air and even catapults. These efforts may have been more successful due to the lack of personnel guarding trouble spots because of the shutdown.

Addiction Treatment Impacted

Government shutdowns increase the likelihood that opioids could find their way past our borders. And our ability to treat people with opioid addiction may also be compromised.

Providing treatment for addiction was the other important part of Trump's plan for addressing the opioid crisis. An estimated 2.1 million people had an opioid use disorder in 2016, yet only about 20% had access to treatment. One of the reasons so few people are treated is that not enough clinicians are trained and certified to treat opioid addiction. The president's initiative requires increasing the number of clinicians certified to treat addiction.

Buprenorphine (Subxone) is one of the tools physicians use to treat opioid use disorder. Doctors require special training and certification to prescribe the drug, as well as a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Agency. During the government shutdown, the DEA was still able to review doctors’ applications, but there were about 30% fewer certifications than there were before the shutdown. It is unclear if that was due to the shutdown or not.

Regardless of whether there will be a physical wall on our border with Mexico, we can see the potential damage that the recent government shutdown can have on curbing the opioid crisis. Congress will now discuss the merits of various options to secure the border, and President Trump is threatening another shutdown if a border wall isn’t funded.

But one thing we should take away from the recent experience is that there isn't much point in saving ourselves from illegal immigrants if we can't protect ourselves from the dangers posed by a government shutdown.

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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 a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. Webster is the author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.”

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.

Fake Oxycodone Seized at US-Mexican Border

By Pat Anson, Editor

Federal prosecutors this week filed charges against an alleged smuggler caught at the California-Mexico border with nearly 1,200 fake oxycodone pills, the latest sign that Mexican drug cartels are targeting pain patients in the U.S.

The pills were made with illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and can be lethal in very small doses. Counterfeit fentanyl pills are blamed for 11 deaths and dozens of overdoses in recent weeks in the Sacramento area, where they were disguised to look like Norco pain medication. Some of the victims were patients who sought painkillers on the street because they couldn’t obtain them legally.

Fake oxycodone, Percocet and Xanax pills have also been appearing in Florida, where they are blamed for at least one death.

19-year old Sergio Linyuntang Mendoza Bohon of Tijuana, Mexico was arrested at the Otay Mesa port of entry on February 10. Border patrol agents became suspicious when they saw “an unnatural looking bulge” in his underwear.

A search turned up 1,183 tablets labeled as oxycodone and 5.4 grams of powdered fentanyl. Laboratory tests later determined the pills were made with fentanyl, not oxycodone.

“This investigation involves the first interdiction of counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl that were smuggled from Mexico into the U.S. at the local ports of entry,” said Dave Shaw, special agent in charge for Homeland Security in San Diego.

FILE PHOTO of otay mesa border crossing

FILE PHOTO of otay mesa border crossing

“While this time we’ve successfully prevented a potentially deadly drug from reaching the streets, we face an uphill battle stemming from the rapidly growing demand for pharmaceutical painkillers on the black market.”

Last year, the DEA issued a nationwide public health alert for acetyl fentanyl, a synthetic opioid produced by illegal drug labs in China and Mexico. Acetyl fentanyl is virtually identical to fentanyl, a Schedule II controlled substance that is often used in patches to treat more severe forms of chronic pain.

Acetyl fentanyl has been blamed for thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S. and Canada. It typically is mixed with heroin and cocaine to make the drugs more potent, but is now showing up in pill form – sometimes disguised as pain medication.

“These criminals are putting fentanyl into fake pills and passing them off as legitimate prescription medications.  Fentanyl is extremely powerful and can very easily lead to overdose deaths,” said William Sherman, DEA Special Agent in Charge.

“Unsuspecting individuals who illegally purchase oxycodone could potentially die from the ingestion of what turns out to be fentanyl tablets,” said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. “We are very concerned that these counterfeit pills could cause serious harm to users. Even miniscule amounts of fentanyl can have devastating consequences for those who abuse it or literally even touch it.”

Bohon faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of unlawfully importing a controlled substance. His next court appearance is scheduled for May 2.

Public Health Emergency in Canada

British Columbia this week became the first province in Canada to declare a public health emergency due to a spike in fentanyl overdoses. Health officials say 201 overdose deaths were recorded in the first three months of 2016. 

Counterfeit fentanyl pills disguised as oxycodone started appearing in Canada about two years ago, where they are often called “greenies” when sold on the street.

ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE photo

ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE photo

“When it's mixed into these tablets it's highly variable from one to the next. So an individual who uses a pill they bought off the street that contains fentanyl may crush up a tablet, inject it and be fine but with the next one they do they may overdose.” Dr. Matthew Young, a substance abuse epidemiologist in Ottowa, told Vancouver Metro.

Like the United States, Canada has a serious problem with opioid abuse and addiction. Young says efforts to reduce opioid prescribing may have contributed to the current wave of fentanyl overdoses.

“That also created a market where organized crime stepped in and started selling these counterfeit tablets containing fentanyl,” he said.