There Are No Easy Medical Solutions to the Opioid Crisis
The Rosenthal Report - April 2018
In this month’s report, we examine the administration’s highly controversial, get-tough strategy for the national opioid epidemic and look at new studies that raise questions about drugs routinely used for pain management and fighting opioid addiction. In news briefs: soaring nationwide consumption of cocaine and tranquilizers and New York City ups its anti-opioid budget.
Trump’s “new” anti-opioid strategy recycles failed policies of the past
President Trump unveiled his administration’s long-awaited anti-opioid strategy, but if anyone were expecting a balanced approach they would have been disappointed. The focus on law enforcement – harsher sentences for drug crimes, building a southern border wall, and the death penalty for drug dealers – not only ignores history (the failed “war on drugs” in the 80s) but also research proven addiction treatment solutions. In editorials, Trump’s get-tough solutions were roundly criticized as “alarming” (Houston Chronicle) as well as “preposterous” and “insane” (New York Times). The Rosenthal Center would add: troubling, even dangerous.
Executing drug dealers, as Iran and the Philippines do, won’t end the opioid epidemic or curtail drug consumption. A border wall won’t curb letter-sized shipments of deadly fentanyl from China, purchased over the dark web. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found “no statistically significant relationship” between state drug imprisonment rates and overall drug use, drug overdose deaths and drug arrests. The President may believe that such bluster plays well with his base, but it ignores the plight of millions of Americans struggling with substance abuse.
Law enforcement should be one element of a comprehensive strategy. But what is more important is the need for greater access to treatment – in particular, long-term residential treatment for the most vulnerable drug users. We also need more education, prevention and outreach programs. Everyone who requires help must be able to receive it (now only around 10 percent of those with substance abuse disorder receive treatment).
President Trump hinted at these priorities but failed to provide any details or specific proposals. Now it’s up to Congress to figure out what to do; dozens of bills are being discussed and there’s $6 billion in the budget. The Rosenthal Center supports boosting funding to expand treatment and establishing a secure funding pipeline to the states. Politico reported that many states have left untouched hundreds of millions of dollars from the 2016 21st Century Cures Act because of the lack of ongoing commitments, which make it difficult for them to start programs and hire a workforce. This money is being lost – and so then are lives.
New studies raise questions about both prescription opioid use and addiction medications
Opioids are still prescribed for pain management, while the standard drug arsenal for addiction medicine includes Naloxone to reverse overdoses and Suboxone to curb drug craving. But now, a slew of recent studies suggest that our assumptions about all of these drugs may need revising.
A JAMA report, for example, found that opioids are no more effective against common forms of chronic back pain or hip or knee arthritis than are over the counter painkillers such as acetaminophen. When it comes to Suboxone, John Hopkins University researchers found fully two thirds of the patients in their study, who received that drug in treatment, were filling prescriptions for opioid medications in the year after treatment and nearly half were doing so while still in treatment. As for Naloxone, a controversial report noted that the drug “led to more opioid-related emergency room visits and more opioid-related theft, with no reduction in opioid-related mortality.”
While such studies are important to our understanding of these drugs and the impact they have, we shouldn’t stop using them in clinical practice. As the national opioid epidemic evolves we must continually re-evaluate the necessity of drugs used to fight pain and the efficacy of adjunctive drugs used in addiction treatment. If anything, the Naloxone findings underscore the Rosenthal Center’s belief that reviving addicts from an overdose is only the first step to recovery. We must then provide immediate evaluation, assessment and comprehensive treatment options, and have the ability to use compassionate coercion, if needed, to compel addicts to start this process.
BIG APPLE BUDGET: New York City upped its anti-opioid spending by $22 million to a total of $60 million in 2018; the money will toward improving drug overdose response times by emergency workers and more programs to connect patients at public hospitals with substance abuse treatment.
COCAINE COMEBACK: After falling by 50 percent between 2006 and 2010, cocaine consumption and cocaine-related deaths have soared, especially among African-Americans, making the drug the nation’s Nr. 2 killer among illicit drugs.
AMERICA’S NEXT BIG DRUG PROBLEM: In the shadow of the opioid crisis, there have been dramatic increases in prescriptions for benzodiazepines - tranquilizers better known as Xanax, Valium and Klonopin – and quantities of the drugs taken by adults as well as teenagers have increased as well. While overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines are much fewer than opioids, the drugs are sometimes mixed with fentanyl for a stronger high, posing a heightened risk of overdose.