Are Rx Opioids Scapegoats for the Opioid Crisis?

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

The Washington Post recently published a series of stories about the volume of opioid medication distributed over the past several years in the United States. Over 76 billion pills were distributed from 2002 through 2012.

That sounds like a huge amount, but it is difficult to know what the number means. What is clear is that the stories are meant to suggest the number of pills is excessive and responsible for the rise in opioid overdose deaths. 

This presumed correlation is one reason for the recent lawsuits that have been filed against opioid manufacturers and distributors. It has also spawned policies that appear to have worsened, not prevented, overdoses.

Though the situation has been framed largely as a prescribing problem, the reasons for the drug crisis are many. While overprescribing has certainly been a factor, it is probably less important than other factors, such as joblessness, homelessness and despair, which are more challenging to address.

Let’s look at the data about the relationship between opioid prescriptions and overdose death rates. The number of opioid prescriptions in the United States peaked in 2012 and began a steady decline. By 2017, they reached a 15-year low.

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Despite the decline in the number of opioids prescribed, overdoses from all opioids – both legal and illegal -- continued to increase. Overdoses involving prescription opioids represent only about 25% of the total number of drug overdoses.  

Obviously, something more than the supply of prescription opioids is driving overdoses higher.

No Correlation Between Opioid Prescriptions and Overdoses

After winning a year-long court battle with the Justice Department, the Post and HD Media, publisher of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, were able to access data from the DEA’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS).

The information in the database shows that, between 2006 and 2012, West Virginia received the largest per capita amount of prescription opioids. The state also experienced the highest opioid-related death rate during that period. Is there a correlation?

Kentucky also had a high number of pills and a high death rate, but as Jacob Sullum recently reported in Reason, Kentucky’s death rate in 2017 was actually lower than Maryland’s and Utah’s, where prescription rates are substantially lower. He also pointed out that although Oregon’s prescription rate was among the highest in the country, the rate of deaths involving pain pills in Oregon was just 3.5 per 100,000, lower than the rates in most states. 

Sullum further showed that Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Tennessee were among the 10 states with the highest per capita prescribed pills during the 2006-2012 period. But they were not the states with the highest overdose rates. 

In a separate analysis, the CDC and Agency for Healthcare Research Quality found no correlation -- not even a weak one -- between opioid prescribing rates and overdoses when comparing data from each state. 

In addition, the rate of opioid prescribing is highest nationally for people 55 years and older, but that age group has the lowest rate.  

This lack of correlation between opioid overdoses and the volume of prescribed opioids is consistent internationally. In 2016, England prescribed the most opioids and saw the most overdose deaths in its history. However, the drug responsible for many of those deaths was heroin, not prescription opioids. 

There is a raging opioid crisis in West Africa where, despite a low prescription rate, the number of overdoses has surged

In 2018, Scotland's drug overdose rate exceeded that of the United States -- largely because of heroin. There is no evidence of an overall increase in opioid prescribing in Scotland. 

No Simple Answers to the Opioid Crisis

It is clear that the data does not support a simple answer to the opioid crisis. Focusing all of our efforts on decreasing the supply of prescriptions will not solve the problem and is already creating unintended consequences.

In fact, cocaine and methamphetamine were involved in more overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2018 than prescription opioids. As the supply of prescription opioids has decreased due to the policies of the last few years, people have moved from prescription opioids to other illicit drugs.

The solution to the opioid crisis must be multi-pronged. Overprescribing played a role in causing the crisis, but sociological factors appear to have driven the demand. We must consider what prompts people to turn to drugs in despair. A recent study published in SSM-Population shows job loss bears a significant correlation to opioid-caused deaths.

In addition, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton (recipient of the 2015 Nobel prize in economics) showed mortality from substance use was linked to declining economic opportunity and financial insecurity.

Solving the drug crisis will not be easy. However, the disenfranchised members of our most impoverished communities deserve viable solutions to their problems. It is crucial to understand the degree to which job loss and hopelessness contribute to the drug problem.

Reputable data proves that the volume of opioids prescribed is not solely, or even primarily, responsible for the opioid crisis. Let’s focus on what is responsible.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary, “It Hurts Until You Die.”

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.

Medical Cannabis Won’t Solve the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Medical cannabis legalization isn’t helping reduce opioid overdoses. Two major studies have closely examined over a decade’s worth of data, finding no support for the idea that legalizing medical cannabis reduces prescription opioid use, overdose or mortality.

In June, Stanford researchers led by Chelsea Shover, PhD, published a study in PNAS using the same methodology as a 2014 JAMA study that found a positive association between cannabis legalization and lower opioid mortality from 1999 to 2010. But Shover and colleagues included more recent data and states with legalized medical cannabis.

“Our expanded analysis does not support the interpretation that broader access to cannabis is associated with lower opioid overdose mortality,” they concluded.

The 2014 study was very cautious in its findings, but cannabis advocates and industry representatives used it to support legalization efforts.

“It’s become such a pervasive idea,” Shover told STAT News. “It would be amazing if it was this simple, but the evidence is telling us now that it’s not.”

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Early this month, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health published a new study in JAMA Network Open that looked at whether people use cannabis in place of prescription opioids.  Researchers looked at data from 627,000 people aged 12 years and older who took the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2004 to 2014.

The results showed that enactment of medical marijuana laws was not associated with a reduction in prescription opioid abuse, contradicting the hypothesis that people would substitute marijuana for prescription opioids.

“We tested this relationship and found no evidence that the passage of medical marijuana laws — even in states with dispensaries — was associated with a decrease in individual opioid use of prescription opioids for nonmedical purposes," said senior author Silvia Martins, MD, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia.

The Shover-PNAS study also made the important point that medical cannabis users comprise only about 2.5% of the U.S. population. The vast majority of cannabis use is recreational. The Washington State Liquor Control and Cannabis Board estimates that only about 20% of so-called medical users are really using cannabis for medical reasons.

In other words, there aren’t enough medical cannabis users to impact nationwide overdose trends. And in state-level analysis, there is no evidence of any substantial effect, positive or negative, from medical cannabis legalization.

There are concerns that cannabis could actually make the opioid crisis worse. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that “cannabis use appears to increase rather than decrease the risk of developing nonmedical prescription opioid use and opioid use disorder.”

Scientific evidence does not support claims that marijuana helps people kick opioids.
— Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director

"My main concern is by basically misinforming potential patients about the supposedly beneficial effects of cannabis, they may forgo a treatment that is lifesaving," NIDA director Nora Volkow, MD, told USA Today. “Scientific evidence does not support claims that marijuana helps people kick opioids.”

The FDA is taking note, warning a large cannabis operator last week to stop making unsubstantiated claims that its products can treat chronic pain, cancer, opioid withdrawal and other medical conditions.

Medical cannabis has uses, of course, but taking it for conditions it is not proven to help may lead to harms. Perhaps a way can be found to incorporate cannabis in addiction treatment, but that is quite different from expecting medical cannabis legalization to be an exit ramp for the opioid crisis.

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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.

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.

Lessons from ‘The United States of Opioids’

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Harry Nelson’s new book “The United States of Opioids: A Prescription for Liberating a Nation in Pain” looks closely and productively at the opioid overdose crisis. It comments on origins and causal factors, and offers pragmatic policy ideas for addressing it. The book is succinct and well-organized, designed for easy reading and reference.

Nelson starts with a dire description of addiction and overdose, calling the U.S. opioid crisis “American healthcare’s self-inflicted wound.” He then gives a brief history of opioids, explaining the three waves of the crisis, culminating in illicit fentanyl and “an increasing crackdown on physician overprescribing.”

Nelson touches on the history and science of opioids, then looks at causes of the crisis. These include not only Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers, but also drug distributors, retailers and health insurers. Institutional and regulatory failures on opioids are not ignored.

“The overarching problem when it comes to physician overprescribing has been insufficient training and education on how to prescribe opioids,” he writes. “The FDA approved these drugs and oversaw the data concerning the risks of their misuse, abuse, addiction, and overdose.”

But Nelson digs deeper, looking at the underlying social and cultural determinants that play into the longer term. He cites a 2018 University of Pittsburgh study that underscores that opioids are part of a broader trend in which abuse of multiple drugs and a rising drug overdose rate “that shows no signs of slowing, with sub-epidemics of different drugs over time.”

Unlike other books, Nelson writes in depth about how to address the crisis: “I believe that our attention should first be focused on a host of intersecting trends that point to suffering in America — parallel crises that include suicidality, anxiety, depression, and pain.”

He explores other options for pain management, from NSAIDs and nerve blocks to non-pharmacological techniques: “It is critical to push insurers and government programs to cover non-opioid treatment, even if it means spending more to achieve this priority.”

Nelson includes a whole chapter on cannabis and other alternative therapies for opioid addiction, in particular kratom and psychedelics. He is optimistic but tentative about cannabis: “Despite the potential to address health issues, consumers need to be cautious about both the claims and contents of cannabis products.”

He also looks at addiction treatment, including AA-type abstinence programs and medication-assisted therapy, and notes that “the biggest challenge in addiction treatment is the complexity of addiction itself.”

Nelson is highly critical of much of the response to the crisis to date: “When I think about the government and health system’s approach for taking on the opioid crisis, the thing that strikes me most is how much it feels tactical rather than strategic.”

Nelson condemns the rampant fraud and patient brokering in the recovery industry. But he also points out that addiction treatment itself needs improvement.

“We will know that addiction treatment has ‘arrived’ in terms of its integration into healthcare when we have relatively uniform professional and program licensure requirements from state to state — something seemingly decades away,” he wrote.

Nelson lists seven general recommendations for the crisis in his OPIOIDS acronym:

  • Outreach for prevention and early intervention

  • Physician improvements

  • Innovation in pain and addiction care

  • Overdose interventions

  • Interdiction off illicit opioids

  • Data analytics to better track the crisis

  • Strengthening access to addiction care

He emphasizes the value of harm reduction, improving social capital, and organizing prevention in schools and the workplace — instead of “stop gap” measures that do little beyond preventing fatal overdoses.

“The key to solving the opioid crisis lies in not being satisfied with tackling the overdose death issue, but in addressing two of the fundamental problems that got us here: the inadequate management of ongoing issues for people living with chronic pain, which overlaps with the second problem of people living with an opioid use disorder (OUD),” he writes.

Finally, Nelson gives a warning: “If we think about the opioid crisis as the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ it’s warning us that we need to address a much bigger, toxic set of problems.”

For all the book offers, it also has problems. Nelson overstates the number of people with opioid use disorder, misrepresents the complex nature of opioid initiation, and misconstrues the varied trajectory of heroin addiction. Most importantly, Nelson gives little attention to rising rates of cocaine and methamphetamine overdose deaths, and ignores that most overdoses involve multiple drugs.

“The United States of Opioids” offers a suite of tools and ideas for moving forward, a refreshing change from the many righteous rants or poignant laments about the crisis.

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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.

A Pained Life: Who Benefits From the Opioid Crisis?

By Carol Levy, PNN Columnist

For the first time in almost 40 years, I have to fight to get my codeine prescription filled.

I understand intellectually what so many pain patients have said about the frustration, upset and upheaval they experience when a pharmacist refuses to fill their prescription or insurance refuses to pay for it. Or harder still, what they go through having their opioid medications cut down or stopped completely.

But I did not understand the emotional side of it until it happened to me.

The insurance company refused to pay for my codeine prescription. They had no problem filling it for the last many, many years but suddenly they need "authorization" from the doctor. How does that make sense? Writing the prescription was authorizing. Why do they need to add a second permission?

It is now over three weeks. The pharmacist tells me they have contacted the doctor's office three times: "You need to call them and find out why they haven't responded."

When I call the office, they tell me the pharmacy never sent over the forms they need.

So I call the pharmacy back. They recite a fax number for the doctor’s office. It is not the right number. I give them the number the doctor's office just gave me. “We'll try it again right now,” she says.

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I keep my fingers crossed and hope I don't run out of pills before it is resolved — if it is resolved.

The pharmacy clerk and I talked the day the prescription was refused by the insurance company. I was venting my frustration over not being able to get the prescription filled, especially because it is the same prescription I have had for years, one that was always covered by my insurance.

To my surprise she says: "It is not just narcotics. Many insurance companies are refusing to cover or making unwarranted demands, requiring many more hoops to jump through. They have refused to cover certain creams and hormones, other prescriptions, non-narcotics that are routinely given and, until now, paid for by the insurance companies."

This is appalling. And makes no sense.  

But then I start thinking about it and was struck by a thought: Yes, there is an opioid crisis. And we’ve all heard the reasons they blamed patients for the “crisis.”  But I think there may be another factor at play: the profit margin.

After all, if we pay insurance premiums but they refuse to pay for our medication -- forcing some folks to pay cash rather than wait for all the rigamarole to be completed -- then the insurance company comes out way ahead. They get our monthly fees and work to make sure we get as little as possible in return. 

I hope I am merely being paranoid. But somehow, I doubt it.

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Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.” 

Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

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.

How Government Shutdowns Worsen the Opioid Crisis

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

On October 26, 2017— a little bit more than a year ago — President Donald Trump declared that the opioid crisis was a national Public Health Emergency. Most Americans seemed to back his initiative to stop opioid abuse, and to reduce drug supply and demand.

However, it seems the recent 35-day government shutdown and Trump's desire to build a border wall have been at cross-purposes with his concern about addressing the opioid crisis.

Two key aspects of Trump’s opioid plan were prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder. Prevention, in part, means reducing the supply. However, everything in the supply is not equally problematic.

Opioids fall into two major categories: those that are prescribed and those that are smuggled into the United States. The number of overdoses associated with prescription opioids has remained essentially unchanged since 2011, while the number of opioid overdoses due to illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surged from 3,000 in 2013 to more than 29,000 in 2017. Most of these drugs originate in China.

One of Trump's major arguments for building a wall is that most drugs that kill Americans are coming over the southern border from Mexico. However, that conflicts with the final report of his opioid commission, which found that "we are losing this fight predominately through China."

Mexican cartels do smuggle illicit opioids across the southern border in passenger vehicles and tractor trailers, often at legal points of entry. Heroin and fentanyl are also smuggled into the U.S. by sea and air or through the mail. A physical barrier doesn’t block any of these types of entry.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with inspecting mail to prevent drug smuggling. Before the government shutdown, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb was calling for more postal inspectors to intercept shipments of opioids. He wanted the government to be able to inspect 100,000 suspicious packages per year, but that would have required double the number of personnel that he had.

Government shutdowns handicap those efforts because it is difficult to hire during shutdowns. It can be challenging just to retain the employees you already have.

The Department of Homeland Security works with the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to patrol the South Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea to stop drug smuggling. These efforts may have been impeded during the shutdown, because some of these "essential" employees had to decide whether to work without pay or call in sick. We can assume that some of them chose the latter course of action. Some government employees may be looking for other jobs because they want a reliable paycheck.

Ironically, due to increased scrutiny at the border, drug smugglers have gotten more creative, increasing their use of tunnels, boats, air and even catapults. These efforts may have been more successful due to the lack of personnel guarding trouble spots because of the shutdown.

Addiction Treatment Impacted

Government shutdowns increase the likelihood that opioids could find their way past our borders. And our ability to treat people with opioid addiction may also be compromised.

Providing treatment for addiction was the other important part of Trump's plan for addressing the opioid crisis. An estimated 2.1 million people had an opioid use disorder in 2016, yet only about 20% had access to treatment. One of the reasons so few people are treated is that not enough clinicians are trained and certified to treat opioid addiction. The president's initiative requires increasing the number of clinicians certified to treat addiction.

Buprenorphine (Subxone) is one of the tools physicians use to treat opioid use disorder. Doctors require special training and certification to prescribe the drug, as well as a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Agency. During the government shutdown, the DEA was still able to review doctors’ applications, but there were about 30% fewer certifications than there were before the shutdown. It is unclear if that was due to the shutdown or not.

Regardless of whether there will be a physical wall on our border with Mexico, we can see the potential damage that the recent government shutdown can have on curbing the opioid crisis. Congress will now discuss the merits of various options to secure the border, and President Trump is threatening another shutdown if a border wall isn’t funded.

But one thing we should take away from the recent experience is that there isn't much point in saving ourselves from illegal immigrants if we can't protect ourselves from the dangers posed by a government shutdown.

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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. Webster is the author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.