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.

Heroin and Fentanyl Fueling Veteran Overdoses, Not Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has taken a number of steps in recent years to reduce opioid prescribing for military veterans and their families. In 2015, the VA adopted the CDC opioid guideline before it was even finalized. Two years later, the agency adopted a clinical practice guideline for VA doctors that strongly recommends against prescribing opioids to patients for more than 90 days.

Both measures were intended to address “mounting concerns about prescription drug abuse and an overdose epidemic among veterans.”

But a new study has found that the “epidemic” of opioid overdoses among veterans is not fueled by prescriptions opioids – but by heroin, illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids obtained on the black market.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that overdose deaths from all opioids increased by 65 percent for veterans from 2010 to 2016. But when then looked closer at prescription data on nearly 6,500 veterans who died, they found an unexpected trend.

"The percentage of veterans who had received an opioid pain prescription in the year before their opioid overdose death dropped substantially over this time period," says lead author Allison Lin, MD, an addiction psychiatrist at the VA Ann Arbor.

In 2010, half of the veterans who died of any opioid overdose had filled an opioid prescription in the three months before they died, and two-thirds had filled a prescription in the last year.

But by 2016, only a quarter of those who overdosed had filled an opioid prescription in the last three months, and 41 percent had done so in the past year.

At the same time, the death rate from heroin or from taking multiple opioids nearly quintupled, and the death rate from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl rose more than five-fold.

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“Interventions on opioid overdose prevention have often focused on those receiving opioid prescriptions; if we're only screening for risk in that population, this shows we will miss a lot," said Lin. "We really have to think about opioid overdose prevention and substance use disorder treatment more broadly, to determine where the greatest unmet need is, increase treatment access and accessibility, and improve outcomes."

The VA provides health services to 6 million veterans and their families. Over half the veterans being treated at VA facilities suffer from chronic pain, as well as other conditions that contribute to it, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A 2016 study of veterans found a strong link between heroin use and the non-medical use of prescription opioids. Having a long-term prescription for opioids to treat chronic pain was not found to be a significant risk factor for heroin use.

The Prescription Opioid Crisis Is Over

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

In a very real sense, the prescription opioid crisis is over. But it didn’t end and we didn’t win. Instead, it has evolved into a broader drug overdose crisis. Opioids are still a factor, but so is almost every other class of drug, whether prescribed or sourced on the street.

The main players in the crisis now are illicit fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine. The vast majority of fatal overdoses include a mixture of these drugs, with alcohol and cannabis often present, and assigning any one as the sole cause of death is becoming tricky.

Connecticut Magazine recently reported on rising fentanyl overdoses in that state. According to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, fentanyl deaths in Connecticut spiked from 14 in 2012 to 760 in 2018. Fentanyl was involved in 75% of all overdoses last year, often in combination with other drugs

Meanwhile, overdoses involving the most widely prescribed opioid — oxycodone — fell to just 62 deaths, the lowest in years. Only about 6% of the overdoses in Connecticut were linked to oxycodone.

Similar trends can be seen nationwide, mostly east of the Mississippi. Opioids still play a major role in drug deaths, with the CDC reporting that about 68% of 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involving an opioid. But more than half of these deaths involved fentanyl and other synthetic opioids obtained on the black market.

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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, overdoses involving prescription opioids or heroin have plateaued, while overdoses involving methamphetamine, cocaine and benzodiazepines have risen sharply.

In other words, deaths attributable to prescription opioids alone are in decline. Deaths attributable to fentanyl are spiking, and deaths involving most other drug class are rising rapidly. The CDC estimates that there are now more overdoses involving cocaine than prescription opioids or heroin.

Moreover, the crisis is evolving fast. At the American College of Medical Toxicology’s 2019 annual meeting, featured speaker Keith Humphreys, PhD, remarked that “Fentanyl was invented in the sixties. To get to 10,000 deaths took 50 years. To get to 20,000 took 12 months.”

In fact, provisional estimates from the CDC for 2018 suggest we have reached 30,000 fentanyl deaths. And state-level data show few signs of improvements for 2019.

Worryingly, methamphetamine use is resurgent. And cocaine is “making a deadly return.”  Illicit drugs are also being mixed together in novel ways, with “fentanyl speedballs” – a mixture of fentanyl with cocaine or meth – being one example.

Drug Strategies ‘Need to Evolve’

The over-emphasis on prescription opioids in the overdose crisis has led to an under-appreciation of these broader drug trends. Researchers are seeing a need for this to change.

“The rise in deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants and the continuing evolution of the drug landscape indicate a need for a rapid, multifaceted, and broad approach that includes more timely and comprehensive surveillance efforts to inform tailored and effective prevention and response strategies,” CDC researchers reported last week. “Because some stimulant deaths are also increasing without opioid co-involvement, prevention and response strategies need to evolve accordingly.”   

It is now common to hear about the “biopsychosocial” model for treating chronic pain – understanding the complex interaction between human biology, psychology and social factors. This same model has a lot to offer substance use and drug policy.

Substance use and addiction involve a complex interplay of genetic and epigenetic factors combined with social and cultural determinants. Treatment must be more than just saying no or interdicting suppliers. At present, medication-assisted therapy for opioid use disorder remains hard to access. And other forms of addiction have no known pharmacological treatment.

Addressing the drug overdose crisis will require not only more and better treatment but also increased efforts at harm reduction, decriminalization of drug use, improvements in healthcare, and better public health surveillance and epidemiological monitoring. Further, the underlying social and cultural factors that make American culture so vulnerable to addiction must be addressed.

None of this is going to be easy. Current efforts are misdirected, making America feel helpless and look hapless. Novel and possibly disruptive options may prove useful, from treating addiction with psychedelics to reducing risks of drug use through safe injection sites and clean needle exchanges.

We are long past the prescription opioid phase of the crisis, and are now in what is variously being called a “stimulant phase” and a “poly-drug phase.” Recognition of the shape of the drug overdose crisis is an essential first step toward changing its grim trajectory.

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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.

Is Fentanyl a Weapon of Mass Destruction?

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Columnist

Usually we think of bombs, missiles, rockets and dangerous chemicals as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, the military website Task & Purpose recently reported that James McDonnell, who heads the Department of Homeland Security’s WMD division, wants to classify fentanyl as a WMD.

McDonnell proposed this in a February memo to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. The drug’s “high toxicity and increasing availability” make it “attractive to threat actors seeking nonconventional materials for a chemical weapons attack,” according to the memo.

There isn’t much evidence for classifying fentanyl as a WMD, but McDonnell’s suggestion could still find support for reasons that have more to do with politics than science.

According to federal law, weapons that can kill or severely injure "through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors" fall into the category of weapons of mass destruction.

McDonnell thinks fentanyl fits the definition. It is not clear that he is correct. And he neglected to mention that fentanyl has a legitimate medical use, too.

History of Fentanyl

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid typically prescribed to patients in acute pain or during surgeries. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, 48 million surgical inpatient procedures were performed in the United States in 2009. Most of those procedures involved administering fentanyl intravenously as an analgesic. 

Fentanyl was developed in 1960 by Belgian chemist Dr. Paul Janssen. The patent for fentanyl was obtained under his company name, Janssen Pharmaceutica. Fentanyl was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1968 and introduced into the marketplace as an analog for Demerol, with plans that it would be used only for palliative care.

In 1978, I coauthored with my professor mentor, Dr. T.H. Stanley, a manuscript titled “Anesthetic Requirements and Cardiovascular Effects of Fentanyl” that described the use of high dose fentanyl for cardiac anesthesia.

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The anesthetic technique we described allowed patients to undergo coronary artery bypass and valve replacement surgery more safely and with greater success because of fentanyl's unique pharmacologic properties. The technique was considered a seminal event in anesthesia for cardiac surgery.

Since the publication of that paper, millions of people have successfully undergone heart operations. The advance of using fentanyl in anesthesia may have helped some of those patients survive their heart operations.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that testing was done for delivering fentanyl through a transdermal patch for the treatment of cancer-related pain and noncancer chronic pain. Later, oral transmucosal delivery of fentanyl was made available for cancer breakthrough pain. Each of these new uses of fentanyl exposed millions of Americans to the drug without evidence of an inordinate degree of harm if it was used as directed.

In contrast, nonpharmaceutical fentanyl has caused enormous harm. But as illicit use of the drug proliferates, so do myths about its dangers. McDonnell’s memo fits into an overarching narrative that bestows almost magical properties on fentanyl.

What's Behind the Fentanyl Panic?

The opioid crisis is real and the use of illicit fentanyl is often lethal. But mischaracterizing the effects of fentanyl may be only a political maneuver. 

In New York Magazine, Sarah Jones wrote about a 2017 Bloomberg News story that claimed fentanyl “is so potent that even a small amount — the equivalent of a few grains of salt — can be lethal.” 

“This isn’t really true,” wrote Jones. “You can’t get high or become ill simply by touching fentanyl, but police departments often claim otherwise. They report dramatic, but varied, symptoms that don’t mesh with established scientific evidence about fentanyl and the way it’s absorbed by the human body.” 

As Jones points out, Homeland Security’s WMD division has experienced a decline in funding because of the Trump administration’s focus on immigration and building a wall at the border. One way to reclaim some of that money for the WMD division is to build a case against fentanyl. 

Other drugs, such as ricin, pose greater risks and are probably more lethal than fentanyl as WMD’s. However, the word "fentanyl" packs a far larger emotional punch than ricin does because of the public's familiarity with it.  

WMDs are meant to kill the maximum number of people is the shortest amount of time. On the other hand, fentanyl -- even when it is laced with heroin -- is not intended to kill people. Drug cartels want to make money. Their goal isn't to murder their customers

Protecting Access to Legitimate Fentanyl 

The opioid crisis is now largely driven by nonpharmaceutical fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, not prescription fentanyl. Solving the opioid problem will require greater efforts to reduce the illegal production and distribution of illicit fentanyl. 

Could fentanyl be weaponized and used to attack citizens? Maybe, but not easily.  

The Pentagon realized the harm that an opioid attack could cause when the Russian military used aerosolized carfentanil -- a highly potent fentanyl analog --  against terrorists who had taken over a theater in Moscow in 2002. The drug killed dozens of innocent hostages and their captors, and it put the U.S. on notice that opioids could be weaponized.  

Before we classify fentanyl as a WMD, we need to know what that would mean for its legitimate use during surgery, or for cancer and chronic pain patients. Access to the medication for the treatment of pain must be part of the calculus in assessing if a relatively safe and effective drug should be classified as a WMD. 

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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 and the author of “The Painful Truth.”

You can find Lynn 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.

What It’s Like to Be Forcibly Tapered Off Fentanyl

By Emily Ullrich, Guest Columnist

Although I have been on this chronic intractable pain, illness and medical refugee train for nearly a decade, I’ve been lucky to have the love and support my husband, family and wonderful people around the world that I've met through this shared anguish. They lift me up and allow me to lift them, when I can.

Right now, I'm holding onto them in utter panic, because they’re all that I have left.

About four years ago, I met a palliative care doctor, who had taken the time to read my 3-page health history. I take that paperwork with me to every visit to the ER or new doctor, so they can fully understand the things that I have tried, what worked, and what made things worse. No doctor had ever looked at it, until she did.

She approached me with zero judgment, and 100% sympathy and empathy. She actually cared about what I'd been through. I broke down sobbing, because I could finally let my guard down. I told her how my husband had to take a day off from work every month to drive me five hours and three states away, to see the only doctor I could find who was willing to treat my complicated needs. She told me I could see her instead. That was a tremendous gift.

Last year I began to sense that there was growing pressure on her about prescribing high doses of opioids, so I asked if I should worry about her cutting my meds or passing me off to another doctor. She reassured me that she would do no such thing.

Then came my visit one month later. I knew something was awry, because there was a case worker present for my appointment. My suspicions were confirmed when I was told the dose of my fentanyl patch would be tapered significantly lower. I was thrown into a tailspin.

With my doctor’s help and willingness to prescribe the meds and dosages that I needed, I had been able to achieve about a 4/10 on the pain scale, daily. I was able to participate in life again and do things that I love, like cooking, getting dressed up to go on a date with my husband, and other things that healthy people take for granted.

I was furious and traumatized that I was going to have to give up living my life. I still am.

On my next visit to see my doctor, she dropped another bomb. She told me that I had to choose between anti-anxiety meds and pain meds. Ironically, she was the one who put me on a higher dose of Xanax to help me cope with anxiety and insomnia. I felt betrayed.

I would not wish the hell of abruptly and simultaneously tapering off fentanyl and Xanax on anyone.  Even when I had a higher dosage, I still had pain flares that were not properly controlled. But since the taper began, I now have them daily.

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I want this to be very clear: Fentanyl is a necessary medicine for many people with high pain levels. I have tried every other extended release medication known and none even touched my pain.

Fentanyl has gotten a bad reputation and patients who take it live with heavy stigma because the media usually report on fentanyl overdoses without distinguishing between illicit fentanyl and properly prescribed legal fentanyl.  

I would like to make a plea to the media: Stop the ignorant reporting and do your due diligence. By not distinguishing between legal and illicit fentanyl, you are causing even more strife for those of us who need the relief that only fentanyl medication brings.

I have still not gotten a clear reason for my doctor's decision to force a taper on me. I fear if I prod too much, she will totally cut me off or advise me to see someone else. This is making the struggle even worse, because even though we still have a pleasant relationship, I'm hurt and confused about this. I suspect it is being forced upon her.

As I wrote this, I had to take breaks for hours, sometimes days, because my pain is escalating to such a level that anxiety and insomnia are ravaging my mind and body. I have been in withdrawal (which, by the way, does not mean I am addicted to my medication, it means I'm physically dependent on it) for about four months.

As my medicine has been tapered, my life has crumbled. I get about two hours of sleep every five days. At times I get uncontrollable head shaking, leg kicking, arm flailing and vocal ticks. My pain gets so bad that I develop a full-body rash and migraines that last for days.

I don't know what is real and what my brain has concocted. I hold nonsensical conversations, like my grandparents did when they developed dementia. It is embarrassing and terrifying.

One night, while counting down the minutes until I could take my next dose of meds, I passed out from pain and anxiety, which scared my husband so bad that he called 911.

I hope that insurers, pharmacies and especially government officials who are infringing on doctors' ability to treat their patients, might read this and see that forcing tapers on patients is dangerous. There have already been many suicides because of them.

A gap is growing between many doctors and their patients. We know this is not “What's best for us.” It is actually a twisted way to make more money off the sick and vulnerable, forcing us to replace a medicine that is effective and safe when used responsibly with drugs that are ineffective, expensive and dangerous.

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Emily Ullrich lives with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), chronic pancreatitis, endometriosis,  interstitial cystitis, migraines, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and other chronic illnesses. She is also a writer, filmmaker, activist, advocate, philanthropist and comic. As she is able, Emily devotes her time and energy fighting for pain patients’ rights.

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.

Fentanyl May Be Classified as Weapon of Mass Destruction

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Trump Administration is considering labeling fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction, according to an internal Homeland Security memo obtained by the military news website Task & Purpose.

"Fentanyl's high toxicity and increasing availability are attractive to threat actors seeking nonconventional materials for a chemical weapons attack," wrote James McDonnell, a DHS assistant secretary, in a February 22, 2019 memo to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

According to the memo, the FBI considers fentanyl “a viable option for a chemical weapon attack by extremists or criminals.”  The idea of labeling fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) is also under consideration by the Department of Defense.

“Within the past couple years, there has been reinvigorated interest in addressing fentanyl and its analogues as WMD materials due to the ongoing opioid crisis,” McDonnell wrote.

DEA IMAGE

DEA IMAGE

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, 50 to 100 more potent than morphine, that is legally prescribed to treat severe chronic pain. In recent years, bootleg versions of fentanyl and its chemical cousins have flooded the black market, where they are often added to heroin and cocaine to boost their potency or used in the manufacture of counterfeit medication.

According to the CDC, fentanyl is involved in more overdoses than another drug and was linked to 18,835 drug deaths in 2016.

Most of the black market fentanyl is produced by drug labs in China and then smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico or shipped through the mail.  

Designating fentanyl as a WMD would enable Homeland Security to increase funding for sensors and other technology that can detect fentanyl being smuggled in vehicles, packages and shipping containers.

A WMD expert told Task & Purpose the idea of fentanyl being used as a weapon was a “fringe scenario” because there are dozens of toxic chemicals that can be easily weaponized.

"It reads like somebody is laying the administrative background for trying to tap into pots of money for detecting WMD and decontaminating WMD," said Dan Kaszeta. "It's an interdepartmental play for money, that's all it is."

An unnamed senior defense official quoted by Task & Purpose was also skeptical.

"Anybody with a college level degree in chemistry can manufacture chemical weapons agents," the defense official said. “I cannot see any scenario where a nation-state would use fentanyl on the battlefield, or for that matter, a terrorist using a really toxic chemical like fentanyl in an attack when they could just sell it for funding the purchase of firearms and explosives or steal an industrial chemical instead.”

China recently agreed to ban all “fentanyl-related substances” by listing them as controlled substances. The move is meant to close a loophole that allowed drug labs to make novel variations of fentanyl that are not technically illegal.

Fentanyl Myths

While fentanyl is a scourge on the black market, drug experts say it’s not nearly as hazardous as it is often portrayed. Reports of first responders becoming severely ill after skin contact with fentanyl are likely the result of panic attacks.

“One of the issues with this dramatization of fentanyl toxicity is that it further stigmatizes substance users as contagious and dangerous. That can potentially delay care to those who need prompt rescue and treatment,” emergency medicine physicians Lewis Nelson, MD, and Jeanmarie Perrrone, MD, wrote in STAT News.

There is no documented evidence of responders becoming ill after skin contact with fentanyl.
— Health Canada

“There is clear evidence that passive exposure to fentanyl does not result in clinical toxicity. Descriptions of the signs and symptoms of those who have supposedly experienced passive toxicity vary widely. They include dizziness, blurry vision, pallor, weakness, sweatiness, high blood pressure, chest pain, heart palpitations, anxiety, and occasionally seizure-like activity. These findings are usually transient and resolve on their own, often far faster than would be expected, and are incompatible with the known duration of the drug’s effect.”

A fact sheet released by Health Canada also dispels some of the myths about fentanyl, telling first responders that skin exposure is “extremely unlikely to immediately harm you” and “there is no documented evidence of responders becoming ill after skin contact with fentanyl.”

Fentanyl has been used in at least one terrorist incident —- by law enforcement. In 2002, Russian police pumped an aerosol version of fentanyl into a Moscow theater where terrorists were holding hundreds of hostages. The gas inadvertently killed 117 of the hostages.

60 Arrested in Latest Crackdown on Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Sixty people in five states face charges of illegal opioid prescribing and healthcare fraud in the latest federal crackdown on opioids. The arrests are the first since the Justice Department established an opioid strike force last year to concentrate on drug crimes in the Appalachian region.

The defendents include 31 doctors, 7 pharmacists, 8 nurse practitioners and 7 other licensed medical professionals.

“The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement. 

“But the Department of Justice is doing its part to help end this crisis. One of the Department's most promising new initiatives is the Criminal Division's Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which began its work in December.  Just four months later, this team of federal agents and 14 prosecutors has charged 60 defendants for alleged crimes related to millions of prescription opioids.” 

The charges involve over 350,000 opioid prescriptions and over 32 million pills. A federal prosecutor claimed that was the equivalent of a dose of opioids for every man, woman and child in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Alabama.

In one case, a doctor and several pharmacists are accused of operating a pill mill in Dayton, Ohio. Over a two-year period, the pharmacy dispensed over 1.75 million pills. 

In Kentucky, a doctor operating a pain management clinic allegedly provided pre-signed, blank prescriptions to office staff who then used them to prescribe controlled substances when he was out of the office. 

And in Tennessee, a doctor who called himself the “Rock Doc” allegedly prescribed dangerous combinations of opioids and benzodiazepines, sometimes in exchange for sexual favors.

“Reducing the illicit supply of opioids is a crucial element of President Trump’s plan to end this public health crisis,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.  “It is also vital that Americans struggling with addiction have access to treatment and that patients who need pain treatment do not see their care disrupted, which is why federal and local public health authorities have coordinated to ensure these needs are met in the wake of this enforcement operation.”

A DOJ press release provided a list of hotlines, websites and other resources where effected patients can get addiction treatment. None of them, however, appear to offer pain management.

Pain patients are often the forgotten victims in law enforcement crackdowns on healthcare providers. Dawn Anderson, for example, a double amputee and diabetic, died last month in “sheer agony” because she was no longer able to get opioid medication from a pain management doctor who stopped practicing medicine after he was accused and convicted of healthcare fraud.    

Most Overdoses Don’t Involve Rx Opioids

The Appalachian region – and West Virginia in particular – has been ground zero in the opioid crisis. But a new study by researchers at West Virginia University shows just how much the crisis has shifted away from prescription opioids.

Researchers analyzed over 8,800 drug-related deaths in West Virginia from 2005 to 2017 and found that deaths involving fentanyl soared by 1,325% over that period.

From 2005 to 2014, prescription opioids were involved in almost 60% of drug related deaths in West Virginia, but from 2015 to 2017 they were only involved in about 30% of drug deaths.

West Virginians are now twice as likely to die from fentanyl than they are from oxycodone. Deaths linked to fentanyl, heroin, alcohol, alprazolam (Xanax) and cocaine outnumber those from oxycodone or any other opioid pain reliever.

Fentanyl and its analogs are synthetic opioids 50-100 stronger than morphine. They’ve become a scourge on the black market, where they are frequently mixed with heroin and cocaine to boost their potency or used in the manufacture of counterfeit medication.

Reducing the supply of prescription opioids and locking up doctors isn’t going to solve the fentanyl problem.

"One of the proven ways to reduce overdoses is to decrease the number of people who are addicted and using. But with fentanyl, you could halve the number of addicts in West Virginia, and the overdose rate could still go up because the strength of the drug coming in is so much stronger and can vary widely from one day to the next," said Gordon Smith, MD, an epidemiologist in the West Virginia School of Public Health. "This is an absolute quandary."

West Virginia's increase in fentanyl-related deaths is part of a national trend. As the CDC reported, deaths from fentanyl overdoses spiked across the United States in 2015 and are still climbing. West Virginia leads the nation in fentanyl-related deaths and has the highest per capita rate of overdose deaths overall.

Illicit Fentanyl Deaths Rising at ‘Exponential Rate’

By Martha Bebinger, Kaiser Health News

Men are dying after opioid overdoses at nearly three times the rate of women in the United States. Overdose deaths are increasing faster among black and Latino Americans than among whites. And there’s an especially steep rise in the number of young adults ages 25 to 34 whose death certificates include some version of the drug fentanyl.

These findings, published in a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, highlight the start of the third wave of the nation’s opioid epidemic. The first was prescription pain medications, such as OxyContin; then heroin, which replaced pills when they became too expensive; and now illicit fentanyl, which is often mixed with heroin or used in the production of counterfeit pills

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that can shut down breathing in less than a minute, and its popularity in the U.S. began to surge at the end of 2013. For each of the next three years, fatal overdoses involving fentanyl doubled, “rising at an exponential rate,” said Merianne Rose Spencer, a statistician at the CDC and one of the study’s authors.

Spencer’s research shows a 113 percent average annual increase from 2013 to 2016 (when adjusted for age). That total was first reported in late 2018, but Spencer looked deeper with this report into the demographic characteristics of those people dying from fentanyl overdoses.

FENTANYL DEATHS BY QUARTER (2011 TO 2016)

FENTANYL DEATHS BY QUARTER (2011 TO 2016)

Increased trafficking of the drug and increased use are both fueling the spike in fentanyl deaths. For drug dealers, fentanyl is easier to produce than some other opioids. Unlike the poppies needed for heroin, which can be spoiled by weather or a bad harvest, fentanyl’s ingredients are easily supplied; it’s a synthetic combination of chemicals, often produced in China and packaged in Mexico, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. And because fentanyl can be 50 times more powerful than heroin, smaller amounts translate to bigger profits.

Jon DeLena, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s New England Field Division, said 1 kilogram of fentanyl, driven across the southern U.S. border, can be mixed with fillers or other drugs to create 6 or 8 kilograms for sale.

“I mean, imagine that business model,” DeLena said. “If you went to any small-business owner and said, ‘Hey, I have a way to make your product eight times the product that you have now,’ there’s a tremendous windfall in there.”

For drug users, fentanyl is more likely to cause an overdose than heroin because it is so potent and because the high fades more quickly than with heroin. Drug users say they inject more frequently with fentanyl because the high doesn’t last as long — and more frequent injecting adds to the risk of overdose.

There are several ways fentanyl can wind up in a dose of some other drug. The mixing may be intentional, as a person seeks a more intense or different kind of high. It may happen as an accidental contamination, as dealers package their fentanyl and other drugs in the same place.

Or dealers may be adding fentanyl to cocaine, meth and counterfeit medication on purpose, in an effort to expand their clientele of users hooked on fentanyl.

“That’s something we have to consider,” said David Kelley, referring to the intentional addition of fentanyl to cocaine, heroin or other drugs by dealers. Kelley is deputy director of the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. “The fact that we’ve had instances where it’s been present with different drugs leads one to believe that could be a possibility.”

The picture gets more complicated, said Kelley, as dealers develop new forms of fentanyl that are even more deadly. The new CDC report shows dozens of varieties of the drug now on the streets.

The highest rates of fentanyl-involved overdose deaths were found in New England, according to the study, followed by states in the Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest. But fentanyl deaths had barely increased in the West — including in Hawaii and Alaska — as of the end of 2016.

Researchers have no firm explanations for these geographic differences, but some experts watching the trends have theories. One is that it’s easier to mix a few white fentanyl crystals into the powdered form of heroin that is more common in Eastern states than into the black-tar heroin that is sold more routinely in the West. Another hypothesis holds that drug cartels used New England as a test market for fentanyl because the region has a strong, long-standing market for opioids.

Spencer, the study’s main author, hopes that some of the other characteristics of the wave of fentanyl highlighted in this report will help shape the public response. Why, for example, did the influx of fentanyl increase the overdose death rate among men to nearly three times the rate of overdose deaths among women?

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Some research points to one factor: Men are more likely to use drugs alone. In the era of fentanyl, that increases a man’s chances of an overdose and death, said Ricky Bluthenthal, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

“You have stigma around your drug use, so you hide it,” Bluthenthal said. “You use by yourself in an unsupervised setting. [If] there’s fentanyl in it, then you die.”

Traci Green, deputy director of Boston Medical Center’s Injury Prevention Center, offers some other reasons. Women are more likely to buy and use drugs with a partner, Green said. And women are more likely to call for help — including 911 — and to seek help, including treatment.

“Women go to the doctor more,” she said. “We have health issues that take us to the doctor more. So we have more opportunities to help.”

Green noted that every interaction with a health care provider is a chance to bring someone into treatment. So this finding should encourage more outreach, she said, and encourage health care providers to find more ways to connect with active drug users.

As to why fentanyl seems to be hitting blacks and Latinos disproportionately as compared with whites, Green points to the higher incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos. Those who formerly used opioids heavily face a particularly high risk of overdose when they leave jail or prison and inject fentanyl, she noted; they’ve lost their tolerance to high levels of the drugs.

There are also reports that African-Americans and Latinos are less likely to call 911 because they don’t trust first responders, and medication-based treatment may not be as available to racial minorities. Many Latinos said bilingual treatment programs are hard to find.

CDC researcher Spencer said the deaths attributed to fentanyl in her study should be seen as a minimum number — there are likely more that weren’t counted. Coroners in some states don’t test for the drug or don’t have equipment that can detect one of the dozens of new variations of fentanyl that would appear if sophisticated tests were more widely available.

There are signs the fentanyl surge continues. Kelley, with the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, notes that fentanyl seizures are rising. And in Massachusetts, one of the hardest-hit areas, state data show fentanyl present in more than 89 percent of fatal overdoses through October 2018.

Still, in one glimmer of hope, even as the number of overdoses in Massachusetts continues to rise, associated deaths dropped 4 percent last year. Many public health specialists attribute the decrease in deaths to the spreading availability of naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WBUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

‘Mexican Oxy’ Flooding U.S. Black Market

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

New York City police and DEA agents have announced the seizure of 20,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills made with illicit fentanyl. The pills, which have an estimated street value of $600,000, are blue in color and stamped “M” on one side and “30” on the other, making them virtually indistinguishable from prescription oxycodone.

The fentanyl pills are believed to have originated in Mexico. Known on the street as “Mexican Oxy,” the highly potent counterfeit pills are often cheaper and easier to obtain than pharmaceutical-grade oxycodone. Black market 30 mg oxycodone pills sell on the street for $9 to $30 each and are surfacing around the country.

“If you take prescription pills that did not come directly from a pharmacy, you are risking your life,” said New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan. “Throughout New York City, we have seen a spate of cases involving tens of thousands of potentially lethal fentanyl pills masquerading as oxycodone.

“Just because black market pills have the same color and design as legitimate pills, it does not mean they are safe. The ingredients and potency are all unknown, and minuscule amounts of fentanyl can cause overdose or death. Consuming a counterfeit pill is akin to playing Russian Roulette.”

Overdose deaths in New York City are at record-high levels and fentanyl is involved in over half of them. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. A customer accustomed to taking oxycodone would not necessarily have the tolerance to ingest illicit fentanyl without suffering an overdose.

DEA PHOTO

DEA PHOTO

Fentanyl powder is typically produced by illicit labs in China and then smuggled into the U.S. through Mexico. The powder is transformed into tablets by pill presses purchased online and then sold by drug traffickers. Four arrests in New York were made in connection with the latest seizure.

“These arrests highlight a growing trend in illicit street drugs which increases the risk of drug overdose,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan. “Traffickers are mass producing pseudo-pharmaceutical pills made of heroin, fentanyl and other illicit drugs in makeshift laboratories throughout New York City. These pills attract users because they are more convenient and less conspicuous; but users should beware because they are unregulated and lethal.”

Fentanyl Seizures at Mexican Border

Mexican Oxy is also blamed for a rash of overdoses in Arizona, where fentanyl deaths have tripled in recent years.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen in 30 years, this toll that it’s taken on families,” Doug Coleman, DEA Special Agent in Charge of Arizona told the Associated Press. “The crack (cocaine) crisis was not as bad.”  

Last month, the U.S. Border Patrol announced its biggest fentanyl seizure ever — over 250 pounds were found in a truckload of cucumbers at a border crossing in Nogales, Arizona.

Most of the fentanyl was in powder form and over two pounds were made up of pills. Together, they had the potential to kill millions of people.  

Just because black market pills have the same color and design as legitimate pills, it does not mean they are safe.
— Bridget Brennan, NYC Narcotics Prosecutor

Most of the fentanyl seized by law enforcement is found hidden inside vehicles at official border crossings around Nogales and San Diego, according to the AP. Smaller shipments of fentanyl are sent directly to the U.S. from China through the mail. The Postal Service’s Inspector General recently reported that over 90 percent of illegal online pharmacies use the mail to ship illicit drugs.

The Postal Service is prohibited from opening packages without a search warrant and is obligated to accept inbound international mail. This makes it more difficult for postal inspectors to identify and track packages suspected of containing illicit drugs. By comparison, private carriers are able to open and inspect packages and can track shipments from beginning to end.

The Inspector General recommended that Congress pass legislation that would give postal inspectors authorization to open and inspect domestic packages suspected of carrying illicit drugs.

Overdose Crisis Will Worsen, But Not Due to Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The opioid crisis will “substantially worsen” in coming years and could result in the overdose deaths of over a million Americans by 2025, according to an eye-opening new study. Because most of the deaths will involve illicit opioids, researchers say limiting the supply of prescription opioids will have only a “modest” effect in reversing the trend.      

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, is based on mathematical models developed by a team of researchers at Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine, Pennsylvania State University and other academic institutions.

“Our study also highlights the changing nature of the epidemic. The opioid crisis is expected to worsen in the next decade owing to multiple factors,” said lead author Jagpreet Chhatwal, PhD, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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“First, the number of individuals using illicit opioids is expected to increase substantially. Second, unlike historical trends where prescription opioid use has served as a path to heroin use, more people are directly initiating opioid use with illicit opioids. Third, there has been a rapid increase in illicit opioid lethality, likely mainly driven by the infiltration of the heroin supply with the highly potent synthetic opioid fentanyl.”

Under a “base-case” scenario, with the opioid crisis stabilizing by 2020, researchers project that over 700,000 Americans will die from opioid overdoses from 2016 to 2025. Nearly 80 percent of the deaths will involve fentanyl, heroin and other illicit opioids. Overdoses involving prescription opioids would decrease by about 10% during that period.

JAMA NETWORK OPEN

JAMA NETWORK OPEN

A “pessimistic” scenario developed by researchers is even more jaw dropping. If the opioid crisis does not stabilize until 2025, they project over 1.2 million Americans will die from overdoses. Over 88% of the deaths will involve illicit opioids.

In either scenario, efforts to reduce the misuse of opioid medication, such as limiting the dose and supply of prescription opioids, will only reduce the number of overdose deaths by 3 to 5 percent.

“State and local governments have instituted several interventions aimed at preventing individuals from exposure to prescription opioids, including a recently proposed goal to lower opioid prescriptions by one-third in the coming 3 years,” said Chhatwal.

“Our study does not devalue these efforts and it is possible that their effect could improve over time, which may ultimately yield a substantial benefit in the long term. However, given the large number of individuals who have already engaged in prescription opioid misuse or illicit opioid use, our study indicates that prevention efforts, in isolation, are unlikely to have the desired level of effect on opioid overdose deaths the near term.”

The researchers say a strong, multi-pronged approach is needed to reduce overdoses, including greater scrutiny of patients for signs of opioid use disorder (OUD).

"It could include implementation of screening for OUD in all relevant health care settings, improving access to medications for OUD such as methadone and buprenorphine, increasing OUD training programs at medical and nursing schools, improving access to harm-reduction services, and controlling the supply of illicit opioids,” they concluded.

Another recent study also predicts that reducing the supply of prescription opioids will have little effect on the overdose rate and could lead to increased use of heroin.