Fentanyl Overdoses Spike in Seattle

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Public health officials in the Seattle area are warning about a spike in fentanyl-related overdoses that have killed at least 141 people in King County since June. As in other parts of the country, many of the deaths involve counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with illicit fentanyl.

Three of the recent overdose victims in King County are high school students who took blue counterfeit pills stamped with an “M” and a “30” – distinctive markings for 30mg oxycodone tablets that are known on the street as “Mexican Oxy” or “M30.”

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“Teenagers who are not heroin users are overdosing and dying,” said Brad Finegood of Public Health – Seattle & King County. “Do not consume any pill that you do not directly receive from a pharmacy or your prescriber. Pills purchased online are not safe.”

Gabriel Lilienthal, a 17-year-old student at Ballard High School in Seattle, died Sept. 29 from a fentanyl overdose.

“Gabe died from a fake OxyContin called an M30,” the teen’s stepfather, Dr. Jedediah Kaufman, a surgeon, told The Seattle Times. “With fentanyl, it takes almost nothing to overdose. That’s really why fentanyl is a death drug.”

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is prescribed legally to treat severe pain, but in recent years illicit fentanyl has become a scourge on the black market, where it is often mixed with heroin and cocaine or used in the production of counterfeit pills. Illicit drug users often have no idea what they’re buying.

As PNN has reported, counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl are appearing across the country and have been linked to hundreds of deaths. Yet this emerging public health problem gets scant attention from federal health officials, who are currently focused on an outbreak of lung illnesses associated with vaping that has resulted in 18 deaths.

‘Enough to Kill San Diego’

In San Diego last month, DEA agents found five pounds of pure fentanyl in the apartment of Gregory Bodemer, a former chemistry professor who died of a fentanyl overdose. Prosecutors say that amount of fentanyl was “enough to kill the city of San Diego” or about 1.5 million people.

Also found in Bodemer’s apartment was carfentanil, an even more powerful derivative of fentanyl, along with a pill press, powders, liquids and dyes used in the manufacture of counterfeit medication.  

Bodemer’s body was found in his apartment Sept. 27. Rose Griffin, a woman who also overdosed at the apartment and recovered, has been charged with drug possession and distribution.

Bodemer was an adjunct chemistry professor at Cuyamaca College in 2016. He had previously worked as a chemistry instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Should Heroin Be Used to Treat Addiction?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Some Canadian doctors are using novel approaches to treat opioid addiction, everything from safe injection sites to opioid vending machines to prescription heroin.

A new proposal would take the concept a step further by establishing the first clinical guideline for using hydromorphone and pharmaceutical grade heroin to treat people with severe opioid use disorder. The idea is to provide a safer supply to opioid addicts who currently use illicit heroin, counterfeit pills and other street drugs, which are often laced with fentanyl.

"Offering injectable opioid treatments is an effective way for clinicians to address the toxicity of the fentanyl-adulterated drug supply and help people achieve stability so they can focus on other aspects of their lives to get well, such as housing, employment, and connecting with family," says Dr. Christy Sutherland, Medical Director of PHS Community Services Society in Vancouver, BC.

Sutherland is one of the co-authors of the guideline, which is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. In 2018, nearly 4,500 Canadians died from opioid overdoses, with about 75% of the deaths involving fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s become a scourge on the black market.

"Opioid use disorder is a public health emergency nationwide; unfortunately, resources for the treatment of opioid addiction have been scarce and guidelines outlining best practices for innovative treatments have been lacking. This guideline is a blueprint for health practitioners to step up and provide evidence-based care," says Dr. Nadia Fairbairn, British Columbia Centre on Substance Use and the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.

Heroin is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, making it illegal to prescribe. But pharmaceutical grade heroin (known as diacetylmorphine) is legal in Canada, UK and several other European countries.

Studies have found that heroin-assisted treatment is effective in treating opioid addiction in patients who have failed at other treatment methods, such as methadone.

Under the proposed guideline, injectable heroin (diacetylmorphine) and hydromorphone (Dilaudid) could be used to treat severe opioid addiction in patients who do not respond to oral medication or use illicit injectable opioids.

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It would be up to each Canadian province to decide whether to adopt the guideline.

Pharmaceutical heroin and safe injection sites are controversial issues in the U.S. But a recent analysis by the RAND Corporation advocates their use to combat opioid addiction.

“Given the increasing number of deaths associated with fentanyl and successful use of heroin-assisted treatment abroad, the U.S. should pilot and study this approach in some cities,” said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. “This is not a silver bullet or first-line treatment. But there is evidence that it helps stabilize the lives of some people who use heroin.”

What About Pain Patients?

Pain patient advocates in Canada were taken aback by the proposal to liberalize the use of heroin to treat opioid addiction. Opioid pain medication is increasingly difficult to obtain in Canada, as it is in the United States, because of restrictive guidelines.

“It is indeed shocking. Pain patients continue to be marginalized, stigmatized, ignored and left to suffer,” said Barry Ulmer, Executive Director of the Chronic Pain Association of Canada.  “I do think it is ridiculous to say opioid use disorder is a public health emergency. The population they are addressing no doubt has to be addressed, but in terms of numbers it is minuscule to those suffering pain, yet the number of dollars expended for both is just out of whack.

“People suffering pain cannot obtain help or even maintain access to medication they have been stable on for years. Something is sadly wrong. What is a public health emergency is the epidemic of undertreated chronic pain. They should get their blinders off. We have well over 1 million Canadians suffering from high impact pain, yet they are pretty much marginalized.”

One of those Canadians is Dan Wallace, a retired military veteran and police detective who lives with chronic knee and shoulder pain.

“I applaud the efforts made and others that are contemplated for the near future that would allow those who are addicted to obtain legally prescribed heroin that would keep them from the tainted street drug supply,” Wallace said. “Where I have a problem is with the complete dismissal of medical care to the many legacy patients who were previously prescribed opioids to manage their pain.”

Wallace used opioid medication for over 20 years before being tapered. He now has trouble walking and sleeping because of what he calls “a tortuous and cruel degree of pain.”

“I and others like me aren’t looking for a handout of free heroin because we haven’t been able to control ourselves and have become addicts. No one deserves to be treated like throw-away patients yet pain patients are just that. Why is it that their lives matter while simultaneously ours do not?” Wallace asks.

“I have never abused any substance in my life. Does my suffering ever help a single person who will now be getting prescribed heroin so they don’t have to buy illegal street drugs? Health Canada should be deeply ashamed at the needless suffering, disability, and deaths of pain patients they have caused.”

There’s More Concern About Animals Suffering Than People

By Debbie Westerman, Guest Columnist

I have Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, as well four herniated discs in my lower back. Because of the “opioid crisis,” I was taken off the only medication that ever helped: fentanyl.

I see a reputable doctor and he is very sympathetic. But as he put it, doctors are no longer just being sued, they are being threatened with jail time.

In addition to my pain and fear, I felt so sorry for him. We’ve tried everything: nerve blocks, injections and I have two spinal cord stimulators.

I was weaned off the fentanyl and only have hydrocodone that I take for breakthrough pain. 

I’ve done everything I’m supposed to. I have an appointment with my doctor every 28 days, along with random drug tests to make sure I’m only taking what he’s prescribing.

My insurance doesn’t pay for the random drug tests. I have to pay $150 each time. I don’t abuse my meds. All of my doctors know what I’m taking. I don’t get any type of pain meds from anyone except my pain management doctor.

DEBBIE WESTERMAN

DEBBIE WESTERMAN

I have to go to work every day. I’m single and have to take care of myself. I use a walker to get around. It’s been months since I have slept more than 2 to 4 hours a night. I’m constantly turning over, putting the pillow under my legs or between my legs, and the rest of the night I’m in and out of bed trying to walk because the pain is so bad.

What really gets me is that if I were an animal and suffering this bad with this much pain, I would be humanely put down. As a society we’ve become more concerned about our animals than we are about people who are suffering unspeakable, unexplainable amounts of pain.

I’ve never wished my pain on anyone. But I really wish that there was some way that these people who think they know what’s best for me could spend 6 hours in my shoes. I guarantee they would be screaming a different tune.

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Debbie Westerman lives in Texas.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org. 

The information in this column 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.

Opioid Overdoses Drop, But Fentanyl Crisis ‘Likely to Get Worse’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Opioid overdose deaths fell by nearly 5 percent in 25 U.S. states last year, according to a new analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- one of the first reports to document a significant decrease in opioid overdoses.

The 25 states covered in the report are participating in the CDC’s State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS), which tracks overdose deaths through toxicology, medical examiner and coroner reports. SUDORS is considered more reliable than other databases because it provides more details on the types of drugs involved – both legal and illegal.

Opioid overdoses fell overall by 4.6% in the first six months of 2018, driven in large part by a 6.6% decline in deaths involving prescription opioids. The CDC found that less than a third (28.7%) of the overdoses were linked to opioid pain medication. Most overdoses involve illicit drugs.

“Prescription opioid deaths stabilized nationally from 2016 to 2017, and the number of opioid prescriptions filled has been decreasing for several years, as efforts to reduce high-risk prescribing have increased. Findings from this report suggest these efforts might have fostered decreases in prescription opioid deaths without illicit opioids,” researchers said.

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While the data about prescription opioids is encouraging, the report paints a grim picture about the abuse of other substances. Nearly 63% of the opioid overdoses involved a non-opioid drug such as cocaine, methamphetamine or benzodiazepines.

Overdoses linked to illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) rose by 11.1% in 2018, with fentanyl or a fentanyl analog involved in nearly nine out of ten opioid deaths.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl analogs such as carfentanil can be even stronger. Most drug users have no idea what they’re getting, because fentanyl is often added to heroin, cocaine and other drugs to boost their potency, or used in the production of counterfeit medication.

Fentanyl Dominates Black Market

A new report from the RAND corporation, a nonprofit research organization, suggests the fentanyl problem will be hard to eradicate. Researchers looked at synthetic opioid markets in the U.S. and other parts of the world, such as Canada and Estonia — where fentanyl first appeared 20 years ago..

“Once fentanyl gains a foothold, it appears capable of sweeping through a market very quickly,” wrote Bryce Pardo, lead author of the study and an associate policy researcher at RAND. “We know of no instance in which fentanyl attained a dominant position in the marketplace and then lost that position to another less potent opioid. To date, fentanyl’s spread appears to be a one-way ratchet.

“One of the most important — and depressing — insights in this analysis is that however bad the synthetic opioid problem is now, it is likely to get worse before it gets better.” 

RAND researchers say the surge in fentanyl and other synthetic opioids is driven by supply-side factors more than user demand. China's pharmaceutical and chemical industries are poorly regulated, allowing producers to cheaply produce fentanyl and ship it to buyers anywhere in the world. Mexican drug traffickers smuggle most of the fentanyl that enters the U.S., although some of it is shipped in the mail or by commercial delivery services.

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Unconventional strategies may be needed to address the fentanyl crisis. The RAND researchers advocate several innovative approaches, such as supervised drug consumption sites, creative supply disruption, drug product testing, and heroin-assisted treatment, which is available in some countries. Sweden has developed an online market with fentanyl analogs sold primarily as nasal sprays.

"It might be that the synthetic opioid problem will eventually be resolved with approaches or technologies that do not currently exist or have yet to be tested," said Beau Kilmer, study co-author and director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. "Limiting policy responses to existing approaches will likely be insufficient and may condemn many people to early deaths."

RAND researchers say there is little reason to believe that tougher sentences, including homicide laws for low-level drug dealers and couriers, will make a difference.

Last week the Mexican navy found over 25 tons of powdered fentanyl on a Danish ship docked at a Mexican port, one of the largest fentanyl shipments ever seized. The shipment originated from Shanghai, China.

Chinese officials are pushing back on claims that they’re not doing enough to stop fentanyl exports, saying the U.S. needs to stop blaming other countries for its own drug problems.

“A small group of people produce fentanyl illegally in China and mail them to the U.S. and other regions, driven by the exorbitant profit and at the request of criminals overseas, including those in the U.S. The Chinese government has zero tolerance for this. Once we find clues, we chase them down and spare no one,” Liu Yuejin, deputy head of the China National Narcotics Control Commission, told Bloomberg.

“I think the most important thing for U.S. politicians is to face the reality: What’s the root cause of such large-scale abuse of fentanyl in the U.S.? They need to find out and come up with solutions.”  

Feds Warn of Counterfeit Oxycodone Deaths

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

In the wake of four fentanyl overdoses in southern California, federal authorities have issued a public safety alert warning drug users about a lethal strain of counterfeit medication designed to look like 30mg oxycodone tablets.

The blue bills have the letter “M” in a box on one side and the number “30” with a line down the center on the other. On the street they are referred to as blues, M-30s or Mexican Oxy.

The pills were found at the scene of four fatal overdoses in San Diego County last week. The deaths in Poway, Santee, Lakeside and Valley Center were all reported within 24 hours.

Although tests on the pills are ongoing, authorities suspect they are laced with illicit fentanyl or carfentanil, which can be fatal in tiny doses.

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SAN DIEGO SHERIFF’S DEPT. IMAGE

“That heroin, that meth, that coke, that oxy you think you are taking? Well, it just might have fentanyl in it, and it just might be the last thing you ever do,” U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in a statement. “I cannot be more clear than this: Fentanyl may be the costliest drug you ever do, because you may pay with your life, and you won’t even know you took it.”

Brewer said border seizures, prosecutions and overdoses are on pace to hit all-time highs in San Diego County by the end of 2019. The Medical Examiner’s Office has confirmed 50 fentanyl-related overdose deaths so far this year, plus another 28 suspected but yet-to-be confirmed cases.

If the trend continues, the death toll could potentially reach 130, which would amount to a 47 percent increase over last year’s total of 90 deaths. The victims are overwhelmingly male, with the average age about 36.

“Just when we think it can’t get any worse, the latest numbers prove us wrong,” Brewer said.  “I am alarmed by the dramatic surge in trafficking activity and deaths, particularly of young people. San Diego is the fentanyl gateway to the rest of the country, and we are working hard to close that gate with interdiction, prosecution and education.”

Federal authorities have confiscated 1,175 pounds of illicit fentanyl – more than half a ton -- at or near the international border so far this year. In addition, there has been a record number of seizures involving counterfeit blue pills labeled M-30 that contain fentanyl. The pills sell on the street for $9 to $30 each and are appearing around the country.

Ports of entry near San Diego are major transit points for illicit fentanyl smuggled in from Mexico. The fentanyl is usually transported in vehicles, often by legal U.S. residents acting as couriers.

A recent report from the Wilson Center found that Mexican cartels are playing an increased role in the fentanyl trade.

San Diego is the fentanyl gateway to the rest of the country.
— U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer

“Chinese companies produce the vast majority of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and fentanyl precursors, but Mexico is becoming a major transit and production point for the drug and its analogues as well, and Mexican traffickers appear to be playing a role in its distribution in the United States,” the report found.

“Both large and small organizations appear to be taking advantage of the surge in popularity of the drug, which is increasingly laced into other substances such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana—very often without the end-user knowing it. To be sure, rising seizures of counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl illustrate that the market is maturing in other ways as well.”

Last week a former Mexican police officer was indicted for fentanyl trafficking by a federal grand jury in Texas. Assmir Contreras-Martinez, 30, was pulled over by a Texas trooper on Interstate 40 in Amarillo in May. About 73 pounds of illicit fentanyl powder was found inside his 2007 Ford Explorer, enough to kill 10 million people, according to DEA experts. 

Contreras-Martinez admitted he was paid $6,000 to transport the fentanyl from California to Florida and that it was his second such trip. Before his unlawful immigration to the United States nine months ago, Contreras-Martinez had been employed for eight years as a municipal police officer in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico.

Canadian Doctors Prescribe Opioids to Keep Patients Off Street Drugs

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

So-called “safe injection sites” – supervised clinics where intravenous drug users can inject themselves -- remain controversial in the U.S. Efforts to establish such sites in San Francisco and Philadelphia are mired in political and legal opposition.

But supervised injection sites are already operating in several Canadian cities, where they are seen as an important resource in reducing the risk of overdose and getting drug users into treatment.

Some Canadian doctors, however, believe the injection sites leave out a key population – illicit drug users who don’t normally inject drugs. Rather than run the risk of those patients turning to risky street drugs, they are prescribing opioid medication to them.

“We have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone and out of the medical establishment comfort zone and say that we need to keep people alive,” Dr. Andrea Sereda, a family physician at the London Intercommunity Health Centre in Ontario told Global News.

Sereda is prescribing hydromorphone tablets to about 100 patients, most of whom were homeless and using street drugs. So far there have been no fatal overdoses, half the patients have found housing, and they have regular contact with healthcare providers.

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“It’s not just a prescription for pills, but it’s a relationship between myself and the patient and a commitment to make things better,” Sereda said. “That involves me taking a risk and giving them a prescription, but it also involves the patient committing to doing things that I recommend about their health and us working together.”

Sereda says her “safer supply” program is only intended for patients who have failed at addiction treatment programs where methadone or Suboxone are usually prescribed.

A similar 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. At another clinic in Toronto, hydromorphone is prescribed to 10 patients who would normally rely on the black market, where drugs are often tainted with illicit fentanyl or its lethal chemical cousin, carfentanil.

“I’ve had people who, literally, their urine is just all carfentanil,” Dr. Nanky Rai, a physician at Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre told Global News. “That’s really what terrified me into action.”

Other physicians are warming up to the idea. Last week over 400 healthcare providers and researchers sent an open letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford asking that high dose injectable hydromorphone be made widely available to illicit drug users.

“We could rapidly implement hydromorphone prescribing,” Jessica Hales, a Toronto nurse practitioner, said in a statement. “Clients want this. Prescribers are eager to deliver it. But it is not covered under the Ontario Public Drug Plan, which is how almost all of my clients access prescription drugs.”

What About Pain Patients?

But patient advocates say the safe supply movement should be expanded to include pain patients who have lost access to opioid medication or had their doses drastically reduced.

“The Chronic Pain Association of Canada fully endorses the safe supply initiative, but asks why we’re helping one group while hurting the other, pointlessly. Safe supply is equally critical for the million or so unfortunate Canadians, including children, who suffer high-impact chronic pain and can no longer obtain the drugs they need,” Barry Ulmer, Executive Director of the Chronic Pain Association of Canada, said in a statement. 

“These patients have long been sustained by the pharmaceuticals and don’t abuse them. But now they’re routinely forced down or completely off their medications, blamed for overdoses they have no part in.”

Some pain patients are turning to street drugs. In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 chronic pain patients in the United States, eight out of ten said they are being prescribed a lower dose or that their opioid prescriptions were stopped. Many are turning to other substances for pain relief. About 15 percent have obtained opioid medication from family, friends or the black market, or used street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

“I know seven people personally that have gone to the streets to get pain relief. Four of them died because it was mixed with fentanyl. Two committed suicide,” one patient told us.

“I have been without a prescription for two years and have been getting medication on the street. I cannot afford this and I have no criminal history whatsoever. I have tried heroin for the first time in my life, out of desperation and thank God, did not like it,” wrote another patient.

Barry Ulmer says these patients need a safe supply too.

“Prescribing opiates safely to those with addiction makes sense. But simultaneously denying legitimate pain patients their medications doesn’t. It’s pointless — and cruel. Let’s give people with pain the same respect and care we give people with addiction,” he said.

How West Virginia Became the Epicenter of the Opioid Crisis

By Douglas Hughes, Guest Columnist 

Aggressive promotion by the distributors of OxyContin, the best pain medication ever formulated (when properly used), led to excessive prescribing by West Virginia doctors. 

This caused a methamphetamine drug problem in the state to morph into a prescription opioid epidemic, mostly due to unused opioids squirreled away in medicine cabinets.  Adolescents ignored by their guardians had complementary party favors of these excess opioids. This is why so many families were affected. 

After a few years of this, once the addiction problems were exposed, the excess prescribing stopped. Those desiring to misuse OxyContin went to pain clinics and lied to receive more.  Since we don’t have tachometers on our foreheads to gauge real subjective pain, lying to doctors was effective for many to get drugs to abuse.  

Not wanting to assist pain specialists and willing to deny legitimate intractable pain treatment, the West Virginia legislature passed the “Chronic Pain Clinic Licensing Act.”

When implemented on January 1, 2015, the goal to deny licenses to a dozen new and existing pain clinics was achieved. This left only pills being hoarded in medicine cabinets, which were quickly depleted.  

OxyContin distribution was suspended to pharmacies in most of West Virginia in 2015. 

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These two efforts stopped most OxyContin prescribing and decimated legitimate disabled intractable pain sufferers in West Virginia, the state with the highest incidence of industrial and worker compensation injury cases. 

For the sake of argument, let’s estimate pain clinic patients were 50% legitimate pain sufferers and 50% abusers lying in order to get opioids.  Each of those twelve pain clinic closures turned a thousand or more patients onto the streets.  Some wanted to abuse, while others desperately sought to replace critical pain treatment denied to them by state law.  Some turned to street drugs as their answer. 

In 2015, West Virginia police departments reported that pain pills seized from drug arrests fell a remarkable 89 percent. The opioid crisis was shifting rapidly to heroin, as the drug sub-culture always does when a drug source changes. The prescription opioid epidemic in West Virginia essentially ended in 2015.  There was no memo from the CDC.

Those thousands of good and bad patients from pain clinics were both naive to the strength and use of heroin.  Dosing, once regulated by prescription, now was more lethal. Learning how to prepare and inject heroin without becoming infected, overdosing and dying was problematic. There were record overdose deaths in 2015, even though there were fewer pain pills. 

Counterfeit medication and heroin laced with illicit fentanyl appeared and record overdose deaths continued in 2016 and 2017 because there were so many inexperienced street drug users.  

Since 2015, West Virginia has wasted millions of dollars annually chasing imaginary diversion and investigating and prosecuting good physicians. This satisfied everyone except legitimate pain patients, who were left suffering and dying in their beds.  A suicide epidemic ensued.

West Virginia lacks a prevention component to their drug crisis response, which insured the re-occurrence of another epidemic. Apparently, we are satisfied with this catastrophe. May we have another?   

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Douglas Hughes is a disabled coal miner and retired environmental permit writer in West Virginia.

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.