Health Canada Supports Use of Prescription Heroin to Treat Addiction

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Canada’s national health agency -- Health Canada – is supporting efforts to expand the use of pharmaceutical-grade heroin in treating opioid addiction.

A treatment center in Vancouver, BC is currently the only clinic in North America that provides diacetylmorphine -- prescription heroin – to opioid addicts. Other clinics may soon follow, after last month’s publication of the first clinical guideline for using injectable diacetylmorphine and hydromorphone to treat people with severe opioid use disorder.

Heroin is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, making it illegal to prescribe for any purpose. But pharmaceutical grade heroin is legal in Canada, UK and several other European countries, where studies have found it is an effective way of treating — or at least managing — opioid addiction.

In a statement to PNN, Health Canada said it supports using diacetylmorphine to help create a safe drug supply for addicts who use dangerous street drugs and have failed at other forms of treatment.

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“Many stakeholders have been calling for a secure and predictable supply of pharmaceutical-grade opioids as an alternative to the contaminated illegal drug supply. Studies have shown that prescription opioids, such as injectable hydromorphone and diacetylmorphine (prescription-grade heroin), have been successful in helping to stabilize and support the health of some patients with opioid use disorder,” said Jennifer Novak, Executive Director of Health Canada’s Opioid Response Team.

“Health Canada has taken steps towards this objective, including making prescription opioids used in the treatment of severe opioid disorder more easily accessible to healthcare practitioners, reducing regulatory barriers, funding guidelines for opioid use disorder treatment, and supporting safe supply pilot projects in British Columbia.”

Pain patients and their advocates bristle at Health Canada’s willingness to liberalize the use of heroin to treat addiction – while it supports policies that limit access to opioid pain medication.

"While it's necessary to make every effort to keep those suffering from substance abuse alive, why has this come at the cost of pain patients' lives? Health Canada blamed these patients for overdose deaths they played no part in and consequently they can no longer access their necessary medicine. The most severe have been sent spiraling back into more suffering, disability, suicide, and to purchase street drugs out of sheer desperation,” says Ann Marie Gaudon, a PNN columnist, pain patient and advocate. 

“Health Canada acts like a hero trying to save those addicted while simultaneously refusing to admit that they have indeed added to the death toll by adding pain patients. Where is their help? It is nowhere to be seen in the homes of Canada." 

Nearly 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from chronic pain and Canada has the second highest rate of opioid prescribing in the world.   

In an effort to reduce the supply of prescription opioids, Canada adopted an opioid guideline in 2017 that is very similar to one released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a year earlier. Both guidelines have had a negligible impact on the overdose rate, while pain patients on both sides of the border lost access to opioid medication or had their doses reduced to ineffective levels.

“Health Canada recognizes that some people who live with chronic pain have been unable to access opioid medications when needed to manage their pain,” Novak said. “We know that opioid medications are an important tool in the management of pain for some Canadians and are working with stakeholders and partners to promote opioid prescribing practices that balance the benefits and harms of these medications based on the individual needs of each patient.” 

Asked what Health Canada is doing to improve healthcare for pain patients, Novak said the agency was providing $3 million in funding to improve education in pain management for physicians, nurses, pharmacists and social workers.  

Three million dollars is a tiny fraction of the $253 billion spent on healthcare in Canada in 2018.

"It's a pittance but the very sad part is that it's all going right back into the same people and programs that made this whole mess to begin with,” says Gaudon. “Nothing new, no help on the horizon for those whose lives have been shattered. They talk as if they are doing something but they truly are not. It's pure rubbish."

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.”

CDC: Still Not Enough Naloxone   

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Trump Administration is stepping up efforts to increase prescribing of naloxone, an overdose recovery drug credited with saving thousands of lives.

Although naloxone prescriptions have increased dramatically, a new CDC Vital Signs report estimates that nearly 9 million additional prescriptions could have been dispensed last year if every patient with a high-dose opioid prescription was offered naloxone.  Patients are considered “high risk” if they take an opioid dose of 50 morphine milligram equivalent (MME) or more per day.

Naloxone has been used for years by first responders and emergency medical providers to revive overdose victims. Current efforts are focused on expanding access to the drug by prescribing it directly to patients considered at risk of an overdose.

In 2018, CDC researchers say only one naloxone prescription was dispensed for every 70 high-dose opioid prescriptions nationwide. Naloxone “under-prescribing” was even more acute in rural counties, which are nearly three times more likely to be ranked low in naloxone dispensing than metropolitan counties.

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“It is clear from the data that there is still much needed education around the important role naloxone plays in reducing overdose deaths. The time is now to ensure all individuals who are prescribed high-dose opioids also receive naloxone as a potential life-saving intervention,” CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, said in a statement.

Ironically, federal policies contribute to the under-prescribing. In 2018, most (71%) Medicare prescriptions for naloxone required a copay, compared to 42% for commercial insurance.

In January, the Food and Drug Administration encouraged drug makers to make naloxone available over-the-counter without a prescription. The FDA even developed an OTC label for Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray that sells for about $135. Seven months later, the FDA could not confirm to PNN that any company had submitted an application for an OTC version of naloxone.

Last year the Department of Health and Human Services released guidance urging doctors to “strongly consider” prescribing naloxone to patients on any dose of opioids when they also have respiratory conditions or obstructive sleep apnea, are co-prescribed benzodiazepines, have a mental health or substance abuse disorder, or a history of illegal drug use or prescription opioid misuse.

Many states are also taking steps to increase naloxone prescribing. California now requires doctors to “offer” naloxone prescriptions to pain patients deemed at high risk of an overdose. State law does not make the prescriptions mandatory, yet some patients say they were “blackmailed” by pharmacists who refused to fill their opioid scripts unless naloxone was also purchased. Patients around the country report similar experiences.   

Unintended Consequences

The drumbeat for naloxone comes at a time when sales are already booming. There were 556,000 naloxone prescriptions in 2018, twice as many as in 2017.

There’s no doubt naloxone saves lives, but some researchers say the drug has had little effect on the overdose crisis and may in fact be making it worse. In a recent study published by SSRN, two economics professors warned of “unintended consequences” if naloxone becomes more widely available.

“We expect these unintended consequences to occur through two channels. First, the reduced risk of death makes opioid abuse more appealing, leading some to increase their opioid use — or use more potent forms of the drug — when they have naloxone as a safety net. Some of those abusers may become criminally active to fund their increased drug use,” wrote Jennifer Doleac, PhD, Texas A&M University, and co-author Anita Mukherjee, PhD, University of Wisconsin.

“Furthermore, expanding naloxone access might not in fact reduce mortality. Though the risk of death per opioid use falls, an increase in the number or potency of uses means the expected effect on mortality is ambiguous.”

The researchers said there were anecdotal reports of “naloxone parties” where attendees used heroin and prescription opioids to get high knowing they could be revived. News reports have also quoted first responders who are frustrated that the same opioid abusers “are saved again and again by naloxone without getting treatment.”

Teens Who Abuse Rx Opioids More Likely to Try Heroin

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

A new study from the University of Southern California finds that teens who abuse prescription opioids are more likely to start using heroin by high school graduation.  

Published in JAMA Pediatrics, the study tracked nearly 3,300 students in ten public high schools in the Los Angeles area from 2013-2017. Nearly 600 of those students reported using prescription opioids to get high.

By the end of high school, a total of 70 students had started using heroin, including about 12% of those who abused opioid medication. Only 1.7% of students who did not misuse prescription opioids tried heroin.

The researchers looked closely at not only the nonmedical use of prescription opioids, but also the use of other substances. A family history of smoking, alcohol and drug problems, and interpersonal factors such as impulsiveness, anxiety, depression and delinquent behavior were also assessed.

Among all the different factors, the best predictor of heroin use was the abuse of prescription opioids. This tendency was significantly stronger than the use of alcohol, cannabis, cigarettes or other non-opioid drugs.

"Prescription opioids and heroin activate the brain's pleasure circuit in similar ways," said senior author Adam Leventhal, PhD, director of the USC Institute for Addiction Science. "Teens who enjoy the 'high' from prescription opioids could be more inclined to seek out other drugs that produce euphoria, including heroin.”

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Researchers also found that students who initiated heroin use were more likely to be male, have less parental monitoring, more delinquent behavior, and impulsive personalities.

The USC study adds to previous research on the complex drug use trajectories that culminate with heroin. It has long been known that nonmedical prescription opioid use is associated with later heroin use, with some anti-opioid activists claiming that 80% of heroin addicts begin by abusing prescription opioids. That is a misleading statistic, as I discussed in a previous column.

There clearly is an association between the misuse of prescription opioids and heroin use, but as the USC researchers found, many other factors are also involved and more research is needed. Their study, for example, did not look at how teens who misused prescription opioids obtained them.  Most likely, they were obtained from friends or family members.

The USC study findings not only advance our understanding of heroin initiation, but also signal the importance of developing better policies to prevent nonmedical opioid use.

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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.

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.

Study Debunks Myths About Origins of Opioid Abuse

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s become a popular myth – and for some, a propaganda tool – to claim that opioid pain medication is a gateway drug to heroin and other street drugs.

An opioid education campaign called The Truth About Opioids – funded with taxpayer dollars from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy — declares in big bold letters on its website that “80% of heroin users started with a prescription painkiller.”

The 80% figure stems from a 2013 study that found four out of five new heroin users had previously abused prescription opioids by using them non-medically.

Importantly, the heroin users were not asked if they had a valid prescription for opioids or even where they got them – but that doesn’t stop federal agencies from citing the study as proof that illegal drug use often starts with a legal opioid prescription.

The Drug Enforcement Administration last year used the 80% figure to justify steep cuts in the supply of prescription opioids, claiming in the Federal Register that addicts often get hooked “after first obtaining these drugs from their health care providers.”

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“The 80% statistic is misleading and encourages faulty assumptions about the overdose crisis and medical care,” Roger Chriss explained in a PNN column last year.

A new study by researchers at Penn State University debunks the myth that the opioid crisis was driven primarily by doctors’ prescriptions. The researchers conducted a series of surveys and in-depth interviews with opioid abusers in southwestern Pennsylvania -- a region hard hit by opioid addiction -- asking detailed questions about their drug use.

The study was small – 125 people were surveyed and 30 of them were interviewed – but the findings provide a an important new insight into the origins of opioid abuse and the role played by painkillers.

"What emerged from our study -- and really emerged because we decided to do these qualitative interviews in addition to a survey component -- was a pretty different narrative than the national one,” said lead author Ashton Verdery, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology, demography and social data analytics at Penn State. "There's a lot about that narrative that I think is an overly simplistic way of thinking about this."

‘Opioids Were Never the First Drug’

Verdery and his colleagues found that over two-thirds of those interviewed (66.7%) first abused a prescription opioid that was given, bought or stolen from a friend or family member. Another 7% purchased the drugs from a stranger or dealer. Only one in four (26%) started by abusing opioid medication that was prescribed to them by a doctor.

“We found that most people initiated through a pattern of recreational use because of people around them. They got them from either siblings, friends or romantic partners," said Verdery. “Participants repeatedly reported having a peer or caregiver in their childhood who had a substance use problem. Stories from childhood of witnessing one of these people selling, preparing, or using drugs were very common. Being exposed to others’ substance use at an early age was often cited as a turning point for OMI (opioid misuse) and of drug use in general.”

And prescription opioids were not the gateway drugs they are often portrayed to be. Polysubstance abuse was common and usually began with drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, prescription sedatives and prescription stimulants.

“It is important to note that interviewees universally reported initiating OMI only after previously starting their substance use career with another drug (e.g., alcohol, marijuana, cocaine). Opioids were never the first drug used, suggesting that OMI is likely associated with being further along in one’s drug using career,” Verdery reported in the Journal of Addictive Studies.

Verdery says additional studies are needed on the origins of drug abuse and that researchers should focus on the role that other substances play in opioid addiction. Only then can proper steps be taken to prevent abuse and addiction before they start.

"We think that understanding this mechanism as a potential pathway is worth further consideration," said Verdery. "It's not just that people were prescribed painkillers from a doctor for a legitimate reason and, if we just crack down on the doctors who are prescribing in these borderline cases we can reduce the epidemic.”