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.

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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.

One in Four Adults in England Take Addictive Meds

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Nearly 12 million people – about one in four adults in England -- are taking addictive prescription drugs to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia or chronic pain, according to a new review by Public Health England (PHE).

The review takes a cautionary view on the use of five drug classes – opioids, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, gabapentinoids, and so-called “z-drugs” such as zolpidem, zopiclone and zaleplon.

“The medicines we looked at help to make millions of people every year feel better and recover from their illness. Doctors can prescribe them because there is good evidence that they work, but they do have some risks,” the PHE report found.

Benzodiazepines, z-drugs, opioids and gabapentinoids are associated with dependence and withdrawal, while there’s a risk of withdrawal with antidepressants. When the drugs are taken in combination or in high doses, there is also risk of respiratory depression and overdose.  

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About half the patients prescribed the drugs in England had been taking them for at least a year — a sign of dependence. But the report cautions doctors not to abruptly discontinue the drugs and to taper them gradually, if at all.

“There is a view that a sub-population of chronic pain patients can be prescribed long-term opioids at relatively stable doses so that their analgesia and functioning can be maintained with good adherence and tolerable side-effects,” the report found.

“We do not want to put anyone off safely using medicines that could help them. Stopping or limiting the use of medicines could also cause harm, including increasing the risk of suicide or making people try to get medicines or illegal alternatives from less safe sources, such as illegal websites or drug dealers.”

Increasing Use of Antidepressants and Gabapentinoids

Antidepressants were prescribed to about 7.3 million people in England or 17% of the adult population. Opioids were prescribed to 5.6 million patients, followed by gabapentinoids (1.5 million), benzodiazepines (1.4 million) and z-drugs (1 million). Prescriptions for opioids, benzodiazepines and z-drugs are dropping, while the use of antidepressants and gabapentinoids is growing. 

Gabapentinoids such as pregabalin (Lyrica) and gabapentin (Neurontin) were originally developed to treat epilepsy, but the drugs are increasingly prescribed in the UK to treat neuropathy and other types of chronic pain. PHE researchers found only marginal evidence that they are effective for pain and alarming signs that they are being misused. 

“Gabapentinoids have come to be used for a wider range of indications than is supported by the evidence or their licensing, and they have sometimes been prescribed in place of opioids or benzodiazepines in the likely-mistaken belief that they are less liable to misuse or dependence, and lack of awareness of the withdrawal problems that can arise when prescribing is stopped,” the report said. 

Prescriptions for opioids and gabapentinoids were 1.6 times higher in parts of England with more poverty. People in poor areas are also more likely to be prescribed medicines for longer periods. Prescription rates for women are about 1.5 times higher than for men. Prescription rates also increased with age.

Doctor Accused of Overprescribing Opioids Fights to Keep Her License

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A northern California doctor who is beloved by many of her patients could lose her medical license because of allegations by the state medical board that she overprescribed opioid medication and other drugs. Dr. Corrine (Connie) Basch runs a solo primary care practice in Arcata, a small city in rural Humboldt county.

“They were looking to put a head on a spike so they could claim they were doing something about the opioid crisis,” Basch told PNN. “I am not considered a negligent doctor in town, nor am I a pill mill. And it would have taken them all of ten minutes to figure that out if they had asked anyone in my community if there was a problem here.”

A formal complaint against Basch by the Medical Board of California, first reported by the Lost Coast Outpost, centers on her treatment of five pain patients on relatively high doses of opioids and benzodiazepines, an anti-anxiety medication. Although Basch had tapered them to lower doses, the complaint alleges the amounts are still excessive and the combination of drugs places the patients at risk of overdose and death.

Board Executive Director Kimberly Kirchmeyer is seeking the revocation or suspension of Basch’s license for excessive prescribing, gross negligence and failure to maintain adequate medical records.

At no point in the 25-page complaint is it alleged that any of Basch’s patients have overdosed or been harmed while under her care.  The board began its investigation of Basch in early 2018 but didn’t file the accusation until last month – suggesting it didn’t think there was any imminent threat to her patients.

“They went after me for no good reason, conducted an ‘investigation’ that was so obviously flawed, published a defamatory accusation on the Internet prior to giving me a chance to defend myself or even correct the factual errors, revealed private details of my patients’ cases on the Internet when those people live in a small town where people already know each other’s business, and would force a small town doc who treats poor people  to come up with several years’ income to defend herself and her license,” Basch said.   

DR. CONNIE BASCH

DR. CONNIE BASCH

All five of the patients in the medical board complaint were already on high doses of opioids and benzodiazepines before Basch started treating them. She tapered these “legacy” patients to lower doses, but some remained on opioid doses as high as 664 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) – well above the CDC guideline’s recommended ceiling of 90 MME.   

The CDC and FDA recently acknowledged that patients should not be forcibly tapered to lower doses and that doctors should “work with patients” before tapering or discontinuing opioids. Basch was already using that approach in her own practice. She says patients who’ve become tolerant to opioids should be weaned slowly and it could take 6-12 months just to get them off benzodiazepines.

“I’ve helped a lot of people get off pain meds,” she said. “Some of my patients stay on meds. I have a patient who is super functional on 145 MME. She’s comfortable, she can sleep through the night, and she works. I don’t see a need to lower her, except that she’s afraid. They’re all feeling insecure. They want to get off (pain meds) because there will be literally no one left to prescribe.”

Afraid to Prescribe

In recent years, California’s medical board has aggressively gone after doctors who prescribe opioids at high doses. The state’s controversial “Death Certificate Project” has resulted in threats of disciplinary action against hundreds of physicians, often years after they wrote an opioid prescription for a patient who fatally overdosed. Some doctors received warning letters even though the cause of death was suicide or involved multiple drugs – both legal and illegal.

These and other enforcement actions have had a chilling effect on doctors statewide.

“What we’re finding is that more and more primary care doctors are afraid to prescribe and more of those patients are showing up on our doorsteps,” Dr. Robert Wailes, a pain specialist and chair of the California Medical Association’s Board of Trustees, told Kaiser Health News.

Should Basch lose her license or stop practicing, all 1,500 of her patients would have to find new doctors, not a simple task in a remote community where healthcare choices are already limited, especially for pain patients.

“There are now two docs I know of in our area who have retired early because of similar accusations, and another older doc who lives in a small coastal community south of us who is going through a similar thing right now,” said Basch. “There’s nowhere even to get primary care up here. And if you call and say you want to be a new patient and chronic pain is anywhere on your problem list, you are denied. So these people are literally going to be left with no one.” 

‘Medical Board Malpractice’

Basch has received over 300 letters of support from patients and several from colleagues in the medical community. Her attorney plans to present them as evidence to the medical board.

“Dr. Corrine Basch is my beloved primary care physician,” one patient wrote. “Taking away her right to assess her individual patients for risk vs benefit, forcing a bureaucratic, possibly ill-conceived set of ‘guidelines’ is what I consider Medical Board Malpractice.

“FEAR caused by actions such as yours are keeping legitimately suffering human beings from having a quality of life they deserve. THIS IS SHAMEFUL.”

“I have had my share of doctors over the years but I never had a doctor like Connie. She has ultimately saved my life and I am not just saying that,” wrote another patient who credits Basch for his sobriety after years of addiction to pills and alcohol.

“You don’t punish someone for doing the right thing and helping people get off of drugs. That is not how you fix the opiate problem plaguing America you do it by employing more people like Dr. Connie who knows the right way to get a person clean.”

Basch, who is 55, continues to practice and is gathering evidence to support her case. A hearing date has not been set on the medical board’s complaint.

“They went after the wrong person this time,” she says. “Shaming and humiliating doctors who have lived lives of service, and placing them in a position where they have to give up their calling because the cost of defense is too great late in their careers, is shameful.”   

Crackdown on Opioids and Benzodiazepines Ignores Their Benefits

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The overdose crisis is driving a lot of panicky policy to more closely regulate the prescribing of scheduled drugs, from oxycodone and other opioids to clonazepam and other benzodiazepines, which are used to treat anxiety.

A California doctor was recently accused of unprofessional conduct and could lose her license for prescribing “excessive amounts of opioid medications and benzodiazepines.” And a New Jersey doctor faces criminal charges for prescribing the so-called “Holy Trinity” of opioids, benzodiazepines and muscle relaxers.

The crackdown on opioids and benzodiazepines may help reduce overdose fatalities, but it also risks depriving people of beneficial drugs. Research is finding new benefits for familiar drugs that may slow diseases and improve quality of life.

In a recent Phase III clinical trial, a “novel” combination drug was shown to ease Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. The drug – called PXT3003 -- provided “meaningful improvement” for people with a hereditary neuropathy that results in a progressive loss of sensation and motor function.

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This is a significant advance for people with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which currently has no treatment. The FDA recently gave PXT3003 its “fast track” designation, which speeds the development of drugs for which there is an unmet medical need.

PXT3003 is a combination of three familiar drugs, naltrexone (an opioid receptor blocker), baclofen (a muscle relaxant), and sorbitol (an alcohol sugar). The how and why of this combination of drugs is not well-understood at present. The manufacturer Pharnext says there are “multiple main mechanisms of action” that improve nerve, muscle and immune cells.

In other words, research on existing drugs with known risk profiles has led to a novel treatment. Ordinarily, the use of an opioid and a muscle relaxant is regarded as clinically inadvisable and is actively counseled against in many prescribing guidelines.

Benzodiazepine Research

A similar outcome is occurring with long-term benzodiazepine therapy in congestive heart failure (CHF). An editorial in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics reported that low-to-moderate doses of benzodiazepines “seem to be helpful in silent myocardial ischemia, angina, essential hypertension, and CHF, especially in patients with comorbid anxiety.”

This builds on research from Taiwan in 2014 showing that anti-anxiety medications are “associated with a decreased risk of cardiac mortality and heart failure hospitalization in patients after a new myocardial infarction.”

Long-term benzodiazepine therapy is already seen as important in the treatment of rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder, a condition in which causes people to act out vivid and violent dreams, often injuring themselves or bed partners. Low-dose clonazepam therapy for months or even years turns out to be a highly effective treatment.

In the same fashion, benzodiazepines are used to treat stiff-person syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that causes extreme muscle rigidly and spasms that can make walking impossible. According to the National Institutes of Health, therapy to treat stiff-person syndrome includes “anti-anxiety drugs, muscle relaxants, anti-convulsants, and pain relievers.”

‘Political Interference’ in Medicine

But treatments for these disorders and the development of new regimens for other disorders may be impeded under current federal and state laws and guidelines. Recently a coalition of six physician groups called on state legislatures to end their “political interference” in the practice of medicine and the patient-physician relationship.

“The insertion of politics between patients and their physicians undermines the foundation of trust this relationship is built on and inhibits the delivery of safe, timely, and comprehensive care. Outside interference endangers our patients’ health by limiting, and sometimes altogether eliminating, access to medically accurate information and to the full range of health care,” the coaltion warned.

Physicians should never face imprisonment or other penalties for providing necessary care. These laws force physicians to decide between their patients and facing criminal proceedings.
— Coalition of physician groups

“Physicians should never face imprisonment or other penalties for providing necessary care. These laws force physicians to decide between their patients and facing criminal proceedings. Physicians must be able to practice medicine that is informed by their years of medical education, training, experience, and the available evidence, freely and without threat of criminal punishment.”

The statement was released by the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Osteopathic Association and American Psychiatric Association.

As the past couple of years have shown, prescribing guidelines have a way of leading to blanket prohibitions. And a risk of blanket prohibitions is that we may miss important benefits.

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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.

Prescription Opioids Play Minor Role in Massachusetts Overdoses

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Two new studies in Massachusetts – one of the states hardest hit by the overdose crisis – highlight the role of multiple substances in most overdose deaths and how limiting the supply of prescription opioids has failed to reduce the number of drug deaths.

Researchers at Boston Medical Center's Grayken Center for Addiction analyzed toxicology reports on nearly 2,250 fatal overdoses involving opioids in Massachusetts between 2014 and 2015. Overdose data in Massachusetts is considered more reliable because it is one of the few states to extensively use toxicology testing.

Only 9 percent of the deaths in Massachusetts involved prescription opioids alone. Most of the overdoses (72%) involved illicit fentanyl or heroin, while one in five (19%) involved a combination of heroin, fentanyl or prescription opioids.

Other substances such as alcohol, marijuana, stimulants (cocaine and methamphetamine) and non-opioid medications (benzodiazepines and gabapentin) were also frequently involved.

“Using multiple substances, in addition to opioids, is the rule rather than the exception for opioid-related deaths,” researchers reported in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“Our study draws attention to the heterogeneity of the problem at hand and that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the overdose epidemic, which is increasingly driven by polysubstance use.”

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Over half of the Massachusetts overdoses involved someone with a diagnosed mental illness. Homelessness and a recent incarceration also raised the risk of a fatal overdose involving both opioids and stimulants.

"As a provider, these findings indicate a pressing need to address and treat not just opioid use disorder, but other substances that patients are misusing," said lead author Joshua Barocas, MD, an infectious disease physician at BMC. "To truly make a difference in reducing opioid overdose deaths, we must tackle issues such as homelessness and access to mental health services. This means not only investing in treatment but also implementing tailored programs that address the specific barriers to accessing care."

Opioid Prescriptions Down 39% since 2015

The number of opioid prescriptions has declined significantly in Massachusetts over the last four years, according to a recent report from the state’s Department of Public Health. In the first quarter of 2019 there were over 518,000 prescriptions filled for Schedule II opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone – a 39% decline from the first quarter of 2015.

But the decrease in prescriptions has failed to make much of a dent in Massachusetts’ opioid overdose rate, which peaked in 2016 with 2,100 deaths and remains stubbornly high.  

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

In 2018, nearly nine out of ten opioid-related deaths (89%) in the state involved illicit fentanyl, with cocaine (39%), heroin (32%), and benzodiazepines (40%) such as Xanax also commonly found.

Only about ten percent of the overdose deaths in the fourth quarter of 2018 involved prescriptions opioids, virtually unchanged from the 2014-2015 study.

CDC: Most Overdoses Involve Illicit Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a new report further documenting the changing nature of the opioid crisis and the lesser role played by opioid pain medication in drug overdoses.

The report from the CDC’s Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance (ESOOS) program looked at nearly 12,000 opioid overdose deaths in 11 states from July 2016 to June 2017. 

Nearly 59 percent of the overdose deaths were attributed to illicit opioids like fentanyl and heroin, while 18.5% had both illicit and prescription opioids.

Less than 18% tested positive for prescription opioids only.

Many of the deaths involved someone with a criminal record or a history of substance abuse. Nearly one in ten overdose victims had been released from a prison or jail in the month preceding the overdose.

Evidence of injection drug use was found in about half of the illicit opioid deaths and about 15% had lived through a previous overdose.

OPIOID OVERDOSES (2016-2017)

Source: CDC Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance

There were also distinct differences in demographics between the illicit and prescription opioid overdoses. The average age of people who died from prescription opioids was 47, while the average age of those who died from illicit opioids was 36. Men were far more likely to overdose on an illicit opioid (73%), while more women (51%) died from a prescription opioid overdose.

“Findings from this analysis indicate that illicit opioids were a major driver of opioid deaths, especially among younger persons, and were detected in approximately three of four deaths overall. Prescription opioids were detected in approximately four of 10 deaths,” CDC researchers reported in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

Polysubstance Overdoses

Another key finding from the report was the frequent involvement of other drugs in opioid overdoses.

Benzodiazepines – a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax and Valium – were detected in over half of the prescription opioid deaths and in about one of every four illicit opioid deaths. “Benzos” depress the central nervous system and raise the risk of overdose when used with opioids. 

Gabapentin (Neurontin) – an anti-seizure drug widely prescribed off-label to treat pain -- was detected in over 21% of the prescription opioid deaths and in about 10% of the other overdoses.

“The combined use of gabapentin and opioids might be an indicator of high-risk opioid misuse and requires further study,” researchers said. “Extensive use of cocaine and benzodiazepines among deaths where both prescription and illicit opioids were detected highlights the need for prevention and treatment programs to address polysubstance use.”

Because so many drugs – both legal and illegal -- are often involved in overdoses, the CDC researchers cautioned that efforts to prevent opioid abuse “should not focus exclusively on one opioid type.”

That warning is at odds with the CDC’s own Rx Awareness program, an advertising campaign launched last year that focuses solely on the stories of people “whose lives were torn apart by prescription opioids.”

Fentanyl, heroin and other drugs commonly involved in overdoses are not addressed by the Rx Awareness campaign. 

“Specificity is a best practice in communication, and the Rx Awareness campaign messaging focuses on the critical issue of prescription opioids. Given the broad target audience, focusing on prescription opioids avoids diluting the campaign messaging,” the CDC explained when launching the campaign.

RX AWARENESS AD

RX AWARENESS AD

Earlier this year, CDC researchers acknowledged that they overestimated the number of overdoses involving prescription opioids by combining them with deaths attributed to illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. The ESOOS program was launched, in part, to correct that error.

ESOOS data is considered more reliable because it includes blood toxicology reports, as well as death certificates, medical examiner and coroner reports, death scene investigations, and an overdose victim’s history of substance abuse. A total of 32 states participate in ESOOS.

The 11 states participating in the current report include: Oklahoma, New Mexico, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Kentucky.

90% of Massachusetts Overdoses Linked to Fentanyl

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nearly 90 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts now involve fentanyl, according to a new report that documents the rapidly changing nature of the opioid crisis. Less than 20 percent of drug overdoses in the state were linked to prescription opioids.

In the second quarter of 2018, Massachusetts health officials say 498 people died from an opioid-related overdose – the third straight quarter that opioid deaths have declined.

But the good news was tempered by the rising toll taken by fentanyl -- the synthetic opioid that’s become a deadly scourge on the black market. Fentanyl is often mixed with heroin, cocaine and counterfeit drugs to increase their potency. 

Because Massachusetts was one of the first states to conduct blood toxicology tests in overdose cases, it’s quarterly reports on drug deaths are considered more accurate than federal estimates and more likely to spot emerging trends in drug use. 

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"This quarterly report provides a new level of data revealing an unsettling correlation between high levels of synthetic fentanyl present in toxicology reports and overdose death rates. It is critically important that the Commonwealth understand and study this information so we can better respond to this disease and help more people,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement.

Another trend documented in Massachusetts is the increasing role played by cocaine and benzodiazepines --- an anti-anxiety medication – in drug overdoses. In the first quarter of 2018, cocaine (43%) and benzodiazepines (42%) were involved in more overdoses than heroin (34%) and prescription opioids (19%). 

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Drug experts say many cocaine users may not realize their drug has been spiked with fentanyl, while many people who buy Xanax or Valium on the black market don’t know they’re getting counterfeit medication laced with fentanyl.

“If you are using illicit drugs in Massachusetts, you really have to be aware that fentanyl is a risk no matter which drug you’re using,” Dr. Monica Bharel, Massachusetts public health commissioner told The Boston Globe. “The increased risk of death related to fentanyl is what’s driving this epidemic.”

Fentanyl is also involved in a growing number of fatal overdoses in Pennsylvania. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, there were 5,456 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania last year. Of those, over 67% percent involved fentanyl. The presence of fentanyl or its chemical cousins in overdose deaths rose almost 400% in the state from 2015 to 2017.

Most overdoses involve multiple drugs and blood tests alone do not determine a cause of death -- only which drugs were present at the time of death.