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.

Study Finds Naltrexone Has No Serious Side Effects

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A generic drug increasingly used off-label to treat fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions is safe to use and more clinical studies are needed on its potential uses, according to British researchers.

Naltrexone is primarily used to treat alcoholism and opioid addiction, but many patients have discovered that low doses of naltrexone (LDN) are effective in relieving pain and other symptoms.

Many doctors won’t prescribe naltrexone, often citing liver toxicity as a reason. But when researchers at The University of Manchester reviewed 89 placebo-controlled studies of naltrexone involving over 11,000 patients, they found no evidence of any serious side effects.

"Though naltrexone is licensed for the treatment of alcohol addiction, it remains underutilized,” says lead author Monica Bolton, PhD, who reported her findings in the journal BMC Medicine. "And that has devastating consequences for individuals, health and social services in the UK and around the world.

"It is cost effective and could reduce deaths."

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“Our review also shows that fears over side-effects are unfounded," said co-author Alex Hodkinson, Phd. "Like all drugs for alcohol addiction, the chaotic nature of being an addict means this drug is simply not prescribed as much as it should be,”

Naltrexone does cause minor side effects in some patients, such as nausea and dizziness, and because it is an opioid antagonist the drug should not be taken with opioid medication.

The fact that naltrexone is generic and inexpensive is one reason the drug is not more widely prescribed. There is little incentive for pharmaceutical companies to market naltrexone or to conduct expensive clinical trials to prove its effectiveness in treating pain.

"As it is safe, cheap and long out of patent, naltrexone would seem an excellent candidate for repurposing for a whole range of conditions,” says Bolton. "That is why it is imperative to find ways to fund clinical trials to test if it might one day be possible to license it.

"The problem is, it is extremely difficult to repurpose existing drugs - and naltrexone is just one example of many wasted opportunities to treat people and save the NHS money."

Of the 89 naltrexone trials included in the Manchester University study, only 3 dealt with chronic pain conditions.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that at very low doses of 5 mg or less, naltrexone may be able to treat a range of immune-modulated conditions including Crohn's disease, HIV, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).

In a PNN guest column, Marelle Reid shared her experience using LDN to treat Interstitial Cystitis, while Janice Hollander said LDN “completely changed my life” when she started taking it for fibromyalgia.

Patients interested in trying LDN often encounter doctors who refuse to prescribe it. The LDN Research Trust includes a list of LDN-friendly doctors and pharmacies on its website.

 

Medical Marijuana Could Help Treat Addiction

By Pat Anson, Editor

Can marijuana be used to treat addiction?

Not according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance with “a high potential for abuse.” Adults who start using marijuana at a young age, according to the DEA,  are five times more likely to become dependent on narcotic painkillers, heroin and other drugs.

But a new study by Canadian researchers found that marijuana is helping some alcoholics and opioid addicts kick their habits.

"Research suggests that people may be using cannabis as an exit drug to reduce the use of substances that are potentially more harmful, such as opioid pain medication," says the study's lead investigator Zach Walsh, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

“In contrast to the proposition that cannabis may serve as a gateway (drug) is an emerging stream of research which suggests that cannabis may serve as an exit drug, with the potential to facilitate reductions in the use of other substances. According to this perspective, cannabis serves a harm-reducing role by substituting for potentially more dangerous substances such as alcohol and opiates.”

In their review of 31 studies involving nearly 24,000 cannabis users, Walsh and his colleagues also found evidence that marijuana was being used to help with mental health problems, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety.

The review did not find that cannabis was a good treatment for bipolar disorder and psychosis.

"It appears that patients and others who have advocated for cannabis as a tool for harm reduction and mental health have some valid points," Walsh said.

With medical marijuana legal in over half of the United States and legalization possible as early as next year in Canada, Walsh says it is important for mental health professionals to better understand the risk and benefits of cannabis use.

"There is not currently a lot of clear guidance on how mental health professionals can best work with people who are using cannabis for medical purposes," says Walsh. "With the end of prohibition, telling people to simply stop using may no longer be as feasible an option. Knowing how to consider cannabis in the treatment equation will become a necessity."

The study was recently published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review. Walsh and some of his colleagues disclosed that they work as consultants and investigators for companies that produce medical marijuana.

Previous studies have found that use of opioid medication declines dramatically when pain patients use medical marijuana. Opioid overdoses also declined in states where medical marijuana was legalized..