Fentanyl Overdoses Spike in Seattle

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

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

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

Seattle pills.png

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

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

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

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

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

‘Enough to Kill San Diego’

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

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

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

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

Mother Who Lost Son to OxyContin Vindicated by Purdue Settlement

By Mark Kreidler, Kaiser Health News

In the 15 years since she lost her son to a single OxyContin pill, Barbara Van Rooyan has had but one up-close look at the people representing the company that made it.

It was in a small courthouse in Abingdon, Va., where Van Rooyan and other relatives of OxyContin victims gathered for a sentencing hearing in 2007. Three executives of Purdue Pharma had pleaded guilty to federal charges related to their misbranding and marketing of the powerful opioid. The company had pleaded guilty as well.

Van Rooyan and the others in her group spoke during the sentencing, giving voice to their grief and their pain. They wanted the executives sent to jail for knowingly expanding an opioid crisis fast engulfing the country.

Purdue-Logo1.jpg

Instead, Purdue paid fines totaling $634 million. The executives served no time. The company was allowed to continue aggressively marketing its product, and the following year, sales of OxyContin reached $2 billion.

From 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, nearly 68% of the more than 70,000 recorded overdose deaths involved opioids, mostly illicit opioids such as fentanyl and heroin.

“I never really thought a whole lot about evil before this all happened,” Van Rooyan said recently, seated on a couch in the living room of her Irvine, Calif., home. “But to see this kind of malevolence or disregard for human life — I don’t know what else to call it but evil.”

The outcome in that Virginia courthouse was a far cry from last week’s news of a tentative mass settlement of many of the 2,000-plus lawsuits against the company, which could total upward of $12 billion and result in Purdue’s dissolution.

The potential settlement amount would include $3 billion from the Sackler family, owners of Purdue, whose fortune is estimated at $13 billion. The family has amassed that money over the past two decades, largely by selling OxyContin, an opioid painkiller.

‘The Lid Is Off’

Van Rooyan’s Purdue experience is a story of deception, sadness and frustration — yet when she tells it now, she emits a surprising spark of energy. That’s because Van Rooyan, part of the unlikely group of citizens who repeatedly took flailing swings at Purdue Pharma, is watching the giant fall.

Van Rooyan, who has studied the cases against Purdue closely, sees the paradox in the proffered settlement: Much of the payout would be financed by profits from the continued sale of OxyContin, under a new company that would be formed following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

But in some regard, she said, Purdue Pharma’s complicity in the opioid crisis has finally emerged into the general public’s view. “The world really knows now. They get it,” she said. “The lid is off, and all this stuff is bubbling out.”

That wasn’t the case on the night of July 4, 2004, when Van Rooyan and her husband, Kirk, got the call that changed their world. Barbara, then a professor of counseling at Folsom Lake College near Sacramento, was told that her son, Patrick Stewart, lay in a San Diego hospital, in a medically induced coma from which he was unlikely to emerge.

Patrick, a graduate of Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, Calif., and San Diego State University, died at age 24.

His friends told Barbara they had attended an Independence Day party at which someone offered her son an OxyContin pill, telling him it “was kind of like a muscle relaxant and it was FDA approved, so it was safe,” she said. Patrick, who had also consumed a couple of beers, was opioid intolerant and suffered respiratory failure in his sleep.

Barbara Van Rooyan holds picture of her son, Kirk

Barbara Van Rooyan holds picture of her son, Kirk

“At the time,” Van Rooyan said, “all I knew about Oxy was that Rush Limbaugh had been addicted to it.”

She was about to learn a lot more.

OxyContin Abuse

Van Rooyan channeled her grief through intense research into Oxy’s vast potential for damage despite the company’s sales pitches to the contrary. A slow-release pain treatment with a heavy dose of the narcotic oxycodone, it could be easily crushed or dissolved for a more intense and addictive high. Rampant abuse already had begun to be reported, particularly in the Appalachian area, author Beth Macy wrote in her national bestseller “Dopesick.”

Later in 2004, Van Rooyan found Ed Bisch, a Philadelphia man who had begun a website to expose Oxy abuse in the wake of his teenage son’s death. The following year, Van Rooyan and her husband, a plastic surgeon, petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to require that OxyContin be made more abuse-resistant, and that its use be strictly limited to severe pain.

“This was an exhausting process, which she and Kirk did as a labor of love to try to save others,” Bisch recalled.

Van Rooyan became the California arm of a grassroots movement known as RAPP — Relatives Against Purdue Pharma. The group, originally just four in number, protested at physician meetings funded by pharmaceutical companies and testified before Congress. Van Rooyan enlisted the help of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wrote the FDA on her behalf and later sent Van Rooyan a letter of commendation.

But most members of Congress did not reply to Van Rooyan’s letters, she said. The FDA said its review needed more time — which turned out to be eight years. By then, Purdue already had reformulated OxyContin to make it more abuse resistant and to renew its patent, but the FDA declined to restrict its use to managing severe pain.

Van Rooyan pressed on, but for a long while, the opioid crisis felt to her like a topic hiding in plain sight. And fighting Purdue while still grieving the loss of son Patrick was taking a toll.

“Her determination was tireless,” Bisch said, “but eventually the frustration burned us out.”

And then came the turn.

A rash of high-profile opioid overdoses and deaths, from actor Heath Ledger to Tom Petty to Prince, put the topic squarely in the public eye — and 15 years after the death of Van Rooyan’s son, Purdue Pharma and other drugmakers were suddenly on the run.

(Editor’s note: Ledger, Petty and Prince all died from a lethal mix of opioids and other drugs that were apparently obtained on the street.)

Wants Purdue Settlement Spent on Treatment

Van Rooyan tracks every development related to Purdue, including a lawsuit in New York that alleges members of the Sackler family have been offloading their fortunes into private or offshore accounts to shield them from a settlement.

But she’s not out for vengeance. Her goals have changed.

“Do I want the records to be public? Do I want these people to have their business shut down? Yes, I do,” she said. “But more than vindictiveness, I want that money of theirs to go to treatment and rehab. If that happens, something good can come out of it.”

If she has a regret, it is that the case in Virginia ended in 2007 with no more than a fine. “If that result had been different — if people had gone to jail — it could have changed the trajectory of this,” she said.

Ana Venegas for KHN

Ana Venegas for KHN

But momentum finally appears to be gathering, and Van Rooyan finds herself identified as one of the trailblazers of the anti-OxyContin movement. She spends little time dwelling on that. Instead, she quotes her younger son, Andrew, who told her, “We didn’t want any of this — this is just the hand we were dealt. We need to play the cards the best we can.”

“She’s just a really strong person,” said Kirk Van Rooyan, who has been with Barbara throughout the ordeal, though he is not Patrick’s biological father. “There have been times when I’d think to myself, ‘How would I be doing if I were in her shoes?’ And the answer usually is, ‘Not as well as she’s doing.’”

Van Rooyan, a longtime artist, now spends much of her time volunteering with veterans in Orange County, Calif., helping them get back into the workforce and using art therapy to help them express themselves.

The art is special to Van Rooyan, she said, because it is part of what saved her in the aftermath of her son’s death.

“Patrick was the one who suggested I take my first class,” she said. After a few delays, she finally enrolled. It was about a month before that Fourth of July in 2004.

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.

Overdoses Linked to Fake Pain Pills Draw Little Attention

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A mysterious lung illness linked to marijuana vaping has drawn nationwide attention this week. The CDC said there were 6 confirmed deaths and 380 cases of the illness, which one doctor warned was “becoming an epidemic.”

Even the White House has gotten involved in the vaping crisis, with President Trump calling for a ban on flavored e-cigarettes. “People are dying with vaping,” Trump said.

Meanwhile, an even more deadly health crisis continues to spread, drawing relatively little attention from the nation’s media and federal officials. Counterfeit blue pills made with illicit fentanyl are killing Americans from coast to coast.

This week, health officials in California’s Santa Clara County announced that 9 fatal overdoses have been linked to counterfeit oxycodone pills since January, including the recent deaths of a 15 and 16-year old.  

Local law enforcement has seized a large number of the blue tablets, which have an “M” stamped on one side and a “30” on the other side. They are virtually indistinguishable from real oxycodone.

568fbf93-392c-45ac-9144-f2d73a5573c1.jpg

“The extent of circulation of these fake pills is unknown; however, they had been consumed by several of the people who died,” Santa Clara Public Health Director Sara Cody, MD, said in a statement. 

“Many opioid pills, which are made to look like real prescription medications, are now made by counterfeiting organizations. These pills are not prescribed, stolen, or resold by or from verified pharmaceutical companies, and there is no connection between their appearance and their ingredients. Many patients may not be aware of the risks of taking a pill that does not come directly from a pharmacy.”  

Mexican Oxy

The overdoses in Santa Clara County are not an isolated situation. Over 700 miles away, the Yakima County Coroner’s Office in Washington State warned that three recent deaths involved fake oxycodone pills with the same distinctive markings. Yakima is used as a major distribution center by Mexican drug cartels.

"Most of the time it comes from Mexico, but we haven't been able to pinpoint exactly which batch it's from and who is actually dealing it," said Casey Schilperoort, a spokesperson for the Yakima County Sheriff's Office.

Known on the street as “Mexican Oxy,” the pills were also found at the scene of four fatal overdoses near San Diego over the summer.  Ports of entry near San Diego are major transit points for counterfeit oxycodone smuggled in from Mexico. The pills are usually transported in vehicles, often by legal U.S. residents acting as couriers. They sell on the street for $9 to $30 each and have spread across the country.

In February, New York City police announced the seizure of 20,000 fake oxycodone pills. Overdose deaths in New York City are at record levels and fentanyl is involved in over half of them. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

This week federal prosecutors in Cleveland indicted ten people for trafficking in fake oxycodone and other illegal drugs. The leader of the drug ring, Jose Lozano-Leon, allegedly directed operations using a cell phone smuggled into his Ohio prison cell.

Prosecutors say Lozano spoke frequently with the co-defendants and others to arrange drug shipments from Mexico to northeast Ohio. The ring allegedly specialized in counterfeit oxycodone.

"In Ohio and other parts of the country, we are seeing an increase in these blue pills that at first glance appear to be legitimately produced oxycodone, but in fact are laced with fentanyl,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Keith Martin.

Ironically, the indictments were filed in the same federal courthouse where a major lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors is expected to get underway next month.  

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

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

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

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

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

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

mail.jpg

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

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

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

Fentanyl Dominates Black Market

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

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

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

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

DEA IMAGE

DEA IMAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

bigstock--200145217.jpg

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.

_DSC8561.jpg

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.

Lessons from the Opioid Database

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Last month The Washington Post made public for the first time a DEA database of opioid prescribing that shows “the path of every single pain pill” sold in the United States from 2006 to 2012.

The Post’s analysis showed that 76 billion pills flowed through the country and nearly 100,000 fatal overdoses occurred over a seven-year period.

Biospace explained that opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers “allowed the drugs to reach the streets of communities large and small, despite persistent red flags that those pills were being sold in apparent violation of federal law and diverted to the black market.”

bigstock-a-glass-head-filled-with-many--47257918.jpg

The first lesson from the database seems obvious. Too many pills were prescribed, with opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers failing to report suspicious orders and government agencies failing to oversee the prescription opioid supply.

“If you don’t start millions of opioid-naive people on opioids they don’t need, it translates … in the longer term into fewer overdoses,” Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys told the Post.

But this misses a key lesson. Although no drug should ever be used when it is not needed, this leaves open the obvious and essential question: How do we reduce risks in people who do need opioids?

We cannot ban opioids completely without returning to pre-Civil War medicine. But each year we have millions of car crashes, severe battlefield and workplace injuries, new cases of cancer, major surgeries and devastating long-term illness.

In the many commentaries on the opioid database, little has been said about improving prescribing safety. We need better ways to use opioids safely because sometimes we just don’t have any other option.

If it is true, as Julie Croft, an Oklahoma addiction treatment provider wrote, “We are all just one accident away from becoming addicted to painkillers” -- then we had better rapidly improve how we use opioids or come up with better alternatives since we have millions of accidents annually.

To this end, Yale and the Mayo Clinic were recently awarded a $5.3 million FDA grant to study patients with acute pain and their use of opioids.

Reduced Prescribing May Not Be Enough

The next lesson in the database is vulnerability to substance abuse. Dennis Scanlon, PhD, and Christopher S. Hollenbeak, PhD, note in the American Journal of Managed Care, that “although using government or regulatory mechanisms to prevent or significantly curb the supply of addictive narcotics is certainly valuable, there is also value in preventing or reducing addiction at its core.”

In other words, policies that reduce opioid prescribing may be helpful, but they may also not be enough. We need better tools and greater understanding of opioid prescribing. The National Institute of Drug Abuse currently estimates that 8% of people on long-term opioid therapy develop some form of opioid use disorder, while The BMJ estimates that less than 1% of surgical patients receiving opioids face a similar fate. These numbers may seem low, but every effort should be made to reduce them.

As bioethicist Travis Reider states in his book “In Pain” about his personal struggle with opioids: “The bottom line is that we are not, by and large, acting decisively in an evidence-based way to tackle the myriad problems raised by opioids. Although we don’t know everything about how to turn the corner on this crisis, we know a lot, and we’re simply not doing it.”

The last essential lesson from the opioid database is that opioid abuse and addiction came long before the crisis. The clichéd response that we “cannot arrest our way” out of the crisis needs to be extended to we “cannot simply restrict our way out” either. We need better prevention and early intervention for opioid use disorder, and improved management of the opioid supply chain so as to prevent theft and diversion.

The crisis is a fast-moving target, with prescription opioid levels having dropped significantly since 2012. Overdoses involving prescription opioids have also fallen, while deaths linked to illicit opioids like fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine are rising sharply. We will need far more than a prescribing database to guide policy moving forward.

Roger Chriss.jpg

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.

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.

addict-2713620_640.jpg

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.

Roger Chriss.jpg

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.