Response to the June 2017 New Yorker Article on the Opioid Epidemic

At this point, I would think that knowledge about the vastness and seriousness of the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic, the biggest threat to American health and well being since the HIV/AIDS epidemic, would be common knowledge. Of course, given the abundance of shiny Internet things to tantalize easily distracted Americans, this is unfortunately not necessarily the case. Thankfully the New Yorker, with their characteristic excellence in reporting, has just released a superb and humanizing article on the opioid epidemic in their June 5 & 12, 2017 issue.

Read the article here.

The piece puts a much-needed human face to the horrors and misery of opioid addiction and the too-frequent death by overdose. Margaret Talbot, the article’s author, zeroes in on Berkeley County, West Virginia, in the heart of a region of the country hardest hit by the epidemic. I don’t want to give away much (because you should actually just read the article) except that the stories are heart wrenching yet balanced, and thorough in way that only the New Yorker can deliver. While the article is largely about the lives of people affected by and fighting against the epidemic, I was disappointed with a couple of points that were either made incorrectly, weakly, or not at all.

First, the article barely talks about how the epidemic arose in the first place. It mentions Purdue pharmaceuticals, the bastards behind Oxycontin (drug name: oxycodone), and that prescription opioid abuse led to heroin addiction but does not describe how the surge in addiction to prescription opioids occurred in the first place. The article describes the main problem with Oxycontin is that it can be crushed and snorted but a 2010 formulation of the drug reduced this risk. While this is indeed true, the article neglects to mention that when someone is first prescribed an opioid like Oxycontin for chronic pain (as was the case in the late 90s and early 2000s despite any evidence for the effectiveness of opioids in the treatment of chronic pain), the addictive potential of opioids often led to opioid substance abuse disorder in people who took it as prescribed (see this comprehensive article for more info). This is the big point, many of the people that eventually abused opioids started down that road by taking the drug as prescribed! Talbot incorrectly frames the big picture problem but she then goes on to correctly describe how those addicted to prescription opioids found their way to the cheaper and more abundant heroin.

The article goes on to mention the CDC’s release of guidelines on opioid prescription but fails to cite that this guidance came out as late as March, 2016, well after the epidemic had already taken root and thousands were already addicted and dying of overdose (I wrote an article on the CDC’s guidelines last year and highly recommend you read that article too if you want to learn more). The CDC’s guidance is mainly about the point I made above, that the over-prescription of opioids is the real cause of the epidemic, not just the crushable version of Oxycontin, and the limitation of opioid prescription is one of the huge policy interventions that is needed.

Later in the article, Talbot introduces us to Dr. John Aldis, a retired U.S. Navy Physician and resident of Berkeley County, WV who took it upon himself to educate people on how to use Narcan (generic drug name: naloxone), the treatment for opioid overdose. Dr. Aldis makes the critical point about the importance of medication-assisted treatments such as Suboxone (generic drug name: buprenorphine) and methadone. I appreciated the point made in the article that some patients may need these vital treatments long-term, or even for life, to combat the all-consuming single-mindedness of opioid addiction. However, beyond this passing mention, I felt that medication-assisted treatment was only weakly covered. There is still a great deal of ignorance about these treatments. Indeed, current HHS secretary Tom Price falsely characterized them as “replacing one opioid with another” and was majorly criticized by addiction experts. The reality is that there is overwhelming scientific evidence (I’ve written plenty on this site) describing the effectiveness of methadone and buprenorphine at 1) keeping addicts off of heroin, 2) allowing them to be able to live their lives without suffering from withdrawals and cravings, and 3) most importantly, keeping them alive. Talbot could have done a much better job of really hammering these points home but she seemed reticent, for some reason, to discuss it in detail in this article.

Finally, the article repeatedly emphasizes the importance of rehab clinics and tells the story of a huge victory for Martinsburg, WV (a town in Berkeley County) when the city council agrees to open a clinic in the town itself. I do not want to discount the importance of an addict assessing their addiction and taking an active role to end it, but this article does miss another critical point: rehab clinics only exist because addiction medicine is not part of medical school curricula and most hospitals are ill-equipped to treat those suffering from addiction. I feel this article could have really made the case for the importance of training for doctors in addiction medicine and the necessary shift that needs to happen for addiction treatment, a move away from overpriced (and often ineffective) private rehab facilities, and to public hospitals. Unfortunately, this point was not made.

Despite these missed opportunities, I commend Talbot and the New Yorker for a well-written article and thank them for this important piece that I encourage all to read.

 

The Laws You Never Heard Of that Will Help to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

When a politician is in his or her final few month in office (because either they lost their re-election or simply decided not to or can’t run), they call this the “lame duck” period. President Obama’s last few months in office were anything but “lame”.

On December 14, 2016, in a rare move of bipartisanship, Obama signed into law the massive 21st Century Cures Act. This law provides a boost in funding for NIH (which includes $1.8 billion for the cancer moonshot initiative), changes to the drug approval process through the FDA, and ambitious mental health reform. This huge bill has the stated purpose of “To accelerate the discovery, development, and delivery of 21st century cures, and for other purposes.”

I’m willing to bet many people were totally unaware of this legislation that could help millions. There are some parts that are controversial and, as with any large piece of legislation, some provision that benefit this interest or that have been worked in (the changes to drug approval at the FDA will likely benefit Big Pharma). I’m not a health policy expert so I’m not about to go through and discuss line-by-line the winners and losers in this law (if you want a more in depth discussion: NPR, Washington Post, and PBS have all written articles on the law).

There’s one piece of the law that I am particularly thrilled about: $1 billion over 2 years for treatment for opioid addiction. That’s rights billion, with a “B”. The money is to be distributed to states in the form of block grants (block grants are in essence a large allocation of federal money to be used for a specific purpose given to states but the details of how that money is used is decided by the states themselves).

This is an unprecedented amount of funding earmarked exclusively to fight the opioid epidemic that is still raging in the US. The funding is to be used for expanding and increasing accessibility to treatment, such as life saving medication-assisted treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine. The federal money will also be used to train healthcare professionals to better care for people dealing with addiction, and a comparatively smaller amount for conducting research on how best to fight the epidemic, and other provisions.

I’ve written about methadone and buprenorphine and their effectiveness ad nauseam on this site and I am personally and thrilled to see a massive federal effort to increase access to these vital tools in the fight against the opioid crisis

The Cures Act comes on the heels of another promising piece of legislation, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), signed into law by President Obama on July 13, 2016. This law includes provisions to expand the availability of naloxone–the medication used to save people from the effects of opioid overdose–to first responders, improve prescription drug monitoring programs, make it easier for healthcare providers to administer, dispense, or prescribe medication-assisted treatments, and other provisions.

The combination of these two pieces of legislation is a promising and much needed initial federal response.

However, this huge boost in funds for treatment in the Cures Act is only for 2-years. President Trump’s budget for FY18 would add $500 million for opioid addiction but most analysts think this is just a sneaky way of making it seem as if he’s supporting addiction treatment when the money has already been written in as part of the Cures Act. Further, his cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services (which contains the NIH and other agencies that administer the Cures and CARA laws) would make it difficult to launch any type of  effective response to the crisis.

Regardless of how things shake out, Trump’s massive cuts for everything that’s not the Department of Defense will likely hurt the fight against the opioid epidemic too. The real question is by how much?

 

5 Facts on the Opioid Epidemic: National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week

Spilled prescription medication --- Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis
Spilled prescription medication — Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis

Well, I’m a little late to the punch on this one but National Drug and Alcohol Facts week has been going and ends tonight. This public awareness campaign is now in it’s seventh year and is all about shattering the myths about addiction.ndafw_logoI might as well throw my belated hat in the ring and share 5 facts about the opioid epidemic.

Fact #1: The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has hit all demographic groups, regardless of race, gender, age, location, or socioeconomic status.

Fact #2: Prescription opioid pain medications like oxycodone can be just as addictive as heroin, even if taken as prescribed.

Fact #3: There is no scientific evidence that prescription opioids are effective at managing chronic pain; they are extremely effect for short-term, acute pain.

Naloxone_(1)Fact #4: Naloxone is a drug that counters the effects of opioids and can immediately reverse an overdose; you cannot get addicted to naloxone.

Fact #5: Buprenorphine and methadone are opioids that can help a person to fight their heroin addiction by satisfying their craving for the drug.

To learn more, here’s a short “Best of” from Dr. Simon Says Science on the Opioid Epidemic. Check out the posts below for oodles of info on opioids.

  1. What is naloxone? Should it be available over the counter?
  2. The CDC Fights Back Against the Opioid Epidemic
  3. Is Methadone an Effective Treatment for Heroin Addiction? YES!
  4. Morphine and Oxycodone Affect the Brain Differently
  5. Important: CDC Releases Report on Heroin Epidemic
  6. Methadone Maintenance Therapy Works-End of Story
  7. Paper Review-Initiation into Injection Drug Use and Prescription Opioids
  8. New Review Paper-The Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic

 

What is naloxone? Should it be available over the counter?

Naloxone_(1)

New blog post for addictionblog on naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdoses.

Read my new post here!

The CDC Fights Back Against the Opioid Epidemic

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The CDC has released important information on dealing with the prescription opioid pain medication and heroin epidemic. Opioids are a class of drugs that include pain medications such as morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, fentanyl and others and the illegal drug heroin. I’ve spoken a great deal about this problem in various other posts (see here here here and especially here and here). Just to summarize some of most disturbing trends: the US is experiencing a surge in deaths due to overdose on opioids (overdoses/year due to opioids are now greater than fatalities from car crashes), virtually all demographics (age groups, income levels, gender, race) are affected, and many people addicted to opioid pain pills transition to heroin and as such, a huge increase in heroin abuse is also occurring; teenagers and adolescents are especially hard hit. The CDC’s report, released on Friday, March 18 provides a thorough review of the clinical evidence around prescription opioid pain medications and makes 12 recommendations to help control the over-prescription of these powerful drugs in attempt to reduce the amount of overdose deaths and addiction.

Read the full report.

I finally got around to reading the whole thing and am happy to summarize its main analyses and findings. While the report is intended for primary health care providers and clinicians, the report’s findings are important for anyone suffering from short or long-term pain and the risks vs benefits posed by opioids.

But before I dive into the meat of the report, I wanted to clarify an important issue about addiction to prescription opioids. A false narrative exists that those suffering from addiction are “drug seekers” and it is this group of people that is duping doctors in prescribing them too many opioids while good patients that take opioids as directed are not over dosing or becoming addicted. It’s important to remember that opioids are so powerful anyone that takes them runs the risk of overdosing or becoming addicted after repeated use. Most people suffering from addiction and overdoses during the current prescription opioid epidemic are people that used opioids medically and not for recreation. This is true for youths prescribed opioids for a high-school sports injury, and older patients prescribed opioids for chronic back pain, and many other “regular” people. The CDC released this report to help fight back against the over-prescription of opioids and the severe risks that accompany their use. Doctors and patients alike need to be aware of the risks vs benefits of opioids if they decide to use them for pain therapy.

Hydrocodone (wikimedia.org)
Hydrocodone (wikimedia.org)

The CDC’s report had three primary goals:

  1. Identify relevant clinical questions related to prescribing of opioid pain medications.
  2. Evaluate the clinical and contextual evidence that addresses these questions
  3. Prepare recommendations based on the evidence.

Two types of evidence were used in preparation of the report: direct clinical evidence and indirect evidence that supports various aspects of the clinical evidence (contextual evidence). Studies included in the analysis ranged from high quality randomized control studies (the gold standard for evaluating clinical effectiveness) to more observational studies (not strong, direct evidence but useful information nonetheless).

The report identified five central questions regarding the concerns over opioids:

  1. Is there evidence of effectiveness of opioid therapy in long-term treatment of chronic pain?
  2. What are the risks of opioids?
  3. What differences in effectiveness between different dosing strategies (immediate release versus long-acting/extended release)?
  4. How effective are the existing systems for predicting the risks of opioids (overdose, addiction, abuse or misuse) and assessing those risks in patients?
  5. What is the effect of prescribing opioids for acute pain on long-term use?

Based on a close examination of the clinical evidence from a number of published studies, the CDC found the following answer to these questions.

  1. There is no evidence supporting the benefits of opioids at managing chronic pain. Opioids are only useful for acute (less than 3 days) pain and for cancer pain or end-or-life pain treatment.
  2. Opioids have numerous risks such as abuse and addiction, overdose, fractures due to falling in some older patients, car crashes due to impairments, and other problems. The longer opioids are used the greater these risks.
  3. There is no difference in effectiveness between immediate release opioids and long-acting or extended release formulation. The evidence suggests the risk for overdose is greater with long-acting and extended-release opioids.
  4. No currently available monitoring methods or systems are capable of completely predicting or identifying risk for overdose, dependence, abuse, or addiction but severak methods may be effective at helping to evaluate these risk factors.
  5. The use of opioids for treating acute pain increases the likelihood that they will be sued long-term (most likely because of tolerance and dependence).
Oxycodone (wikimedia.org)
Oxycodone (wikimedia.org)

The CDC also examined what they called contextual evidence or studies that didn’t directly answer the primary clinical questions but still provided valuable, if indirect, information about treatment of pain with/without opioids.

  • Non-medication based therapies like physical therapy, exercise therapy, psychological therapies, etc. can be effective at treating chronic pain for a number of conditions.
  • Non-opioid pain medications such as acetaminophen, NSAIDs, Cox-2 inhibitors, anti-convulsants, and anti-depressants (in some instances) were also effective in treating chronic pain for various conditions and have fewer dangers than opioids.
  • Long-acting opioids increase the risk for overdose and addiction. Higher doses of opioids also increase the risk for overdose.
  • Co-prescription of opioids with benzodiazepines greatly increases the risk of overdoses.
  • Many doctors are unsure of how to talk to their patients about opioids and their benefits vs risks and most patients don’t know what opioids even are.
  • The opioid epidemic costs billions of dollars in medical and associated costs. Its estimated  costs due to treatment of overdose alone is $20.4 billion.

Many other findings and important pieces are information were reported but too many to list here.

Based on all results of the analysis the CDC came up with 12 recommendations in three broad categories. I’ll briefly discuss each recommendation.

Category 1: Determining when to initiate or continue opioids for chronic pain.

  • Recommendation 1: Non-pharmacologic (medication-based) therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy are preferred for chronic pain.
    • The risks of overdose and addiction from long-term use of opioids is very high and benefits for actually treating pain are very low for most people. Therefore, other safer and more-effective treatments should be use first. The discussion of the risks vs benefits needs to be made clear by the patient’s doctor.
  • Recommendation 2: Before starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should establish treatment goals with all patients, including realistic goals for pain and function
    • Opioids should be used for the shortest amount of time possible but if used for a long-term treatment, at the lowest effective dose.
    • If a patient suffers from an overdose or seems as if dependence or addiction is developing, a patient may need to be tapered off of opioids.
  • Recommendation 3: Before starting and periodically during opioid therapy, clinicians should discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy.
    • The risks are high for the use of opioids and it is necessary for doctors to keep their patients informed about these risks.
    • Doctors should be “be explicit and realistic about expected benefits from opioids, explaining that while opioids can reduce pain during short-term use, there is no good evidence that opioids improve pain or function with long-term use, and that complete relief of pain is unlikely.”

Category 2: Opioid selection, dosage, duration, follow-up, and discontinuation.

  • Recommendation 4: When starting opioid therapy, clinicians should prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release or long-acting opioids.
    • There appears to be no difference in effectiveness at treating pain between the different types of opioids but the long-acting opioids come with a greater risk for overdose and dependence.
    • Long-acting opioids should be reserved for cancer pain or end-of-life pain.
    • It’s important to note that “abuse-deterrent” does not mean that there is no risk for abuse, dependence, or addiction. These types of formulations are generally to prevent intravenous use (shooting up with a needle) but most problems with opioids occur as a result of normal, oral use.
  • Recommendation 5: When opioids are started, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dosage.
    • The higher the dose the greater the risk. A low dose may be sufficient to control the pain without risk for overdose or the development of dependence.
    • Opioids are often most effective in the short-term and may not need to be continued after 3 days.
    • If dosage needs to be increased, changes in pain and function in the patient should be re-evaluated afterwards to determine if a benefit has occurred.
    • Patients currently on high-dose long-term opioids for chronic pain may want to consider tapering down their dosage.
      • Tapering opioids can be challenging can take a long-time due to the physical and psychological dependence. Tapering should be done slowly to and the best course of dosage should be determined specifically for the patient.
    • Recommendation 6: Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain. When opioids are used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and should prescribe no greater quantity than needed.
      • Evidence suggests that using an opioid for acute pain can start a patient down a path of long-term use. This should attempted to be avoided by using a low dose if opioid is selected to treat acute pain.
      • Acute pain can often be effectively managed without opioids with non-medication-based therapies (like exercise, water aerobics, physical therapy, etc.) or non-opioid medications (like acetaminophen or NSAIDs).
    • Recommendation 7: Clinicians should evaluate benefits and harms with patients within 1-4 weeks of starting opioid therapy for chronic pain or of dose escalation.
      • Opioids are most effective for the first three days and possible up to a week. If long-term therapy is decided upon, treatment should regularly be reassessed and reevaluated (at least every 3 months for long-term therapy).

Category 3: Assessing risks and addressing harms of opioid use.

  • Recommendation 8: Before starting and periodically during continuation of opioid therapy, clinicians should evaluate risk factors for opioid-related harms. Clinicians should incorporate into the management plan strategies to mitigate risk, including considering offering naloxone.
    • Specific risk factors for the specific condition that patient is using opioids for should be considered when developing the treatment plan.
    • Naloxone blocks the effects of opioids and can immediately revive someone that has experienced an overdose. Naloxone should be offered to patients if a patient is using opioids at high-dose for long-term therapy or previously suffered an overdose.
  • Recommendation 9: Clinicians should review the patient’s history of controlled substance prescription using state prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) data to determine whether a patient is receive opioid dosages or dangerous combinations that put him or her at risk for overdose.
    • PDMPs are state-run databases that collect information on controlled prescription drugs dispensed by pharmacies and in some states, physicians too.
    • While the clinical evidence was unclear if PDMPs were accurate at predicting overdose or addiction, the contextual evidence supported that “most fatal overdoses were associated with patients receiving opioids from multiple prescribers and/or with patients receiving high total daily opioid dosage.”
    • PDMP should be consulted before beginning opioid therapy and during the course of treatment if used for long-term therapy and this data should be discussed with the patient.
    • However, PDMP data must be used cautiously as some patients are turned away from treatment that would otherwise have benefited.
  • Recommendation 10: (not a general recommendation but to be considered on a patient-by-patient basis) When prescribing opioids for chronic pain, clinicians should use urine drug testing before starting opioid therapy and consider urine drug testing at least annually to assess for prescribed medications as well as other controlled prescription drugs and illicit drugs.
    • Urine drug tests can reveal information about potential risks due to combinations with other drugs not reported by the patient (e.g. benzodiazepines, heroin).
    • Urine testing should become standard practice and should be done prior to starting opioids for chronic therapy.
    • Clinicians should make it clear that testing is intended for patient safety and is not intended to deprive the patient of therapy unnecessarily.
  • Recommendation 11: Clinicians should avoid prescribing opioid pain medication and benzodiazepines concurrently whenever possible.
    • Strong evidence suggests that many overdoses occurred in patients prescribed both benzodiazepines and opioids. The two should never be prescribed together if at all possible.
  • Recommendation 12: Clinicians should offer or arrange evidence-based treatment (usually medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine or methadone in combination with behavioral therapies) for patients with opioid abuse disorder (addiction).
    • Many patients using opioids for chronic pain now may have become physically and psychologically addicted to them and should be offered treatment (estimated at 3-26% of patients using opioids for chronic pain therapy).
    • Methadone and buprenorphine are proven, safe, and effective-treatments that retain patients in treatment and that satisfy an opioid addict’s cravings, prevent relapse to abusing opioids/heroin, and allow the patient to live a normal life (read my blog post on methadone).
    • Behavioral therapy/individual counseling in combination with medication-based treatment may improve positive benefits of treatment even further.
    • However, access to these medications can be extremely limited in some communities due to availability (methadone is restricted to clinics and clinicians need certification in order to prescribe buprenorphine) or cost (treatment often is not covered by insurance).
    • Urine testing or PDMP data may help to reveal if a patient has become addicted and if so, treatment should be arranged.

In Summary, the main takeaways from the report are:

  • Opioids are associated with many risks such as overdose, abuse, dependence, addiction, and others (e.g. fractures from falling or car-crashes due to impairment).
  • No evidence exists that opioids are effective for treatment of chronic pain (with the exception of cancer and end-of-life pain).
  • Opioids are most effective for short term (3-7 days) and in immediate-release formulations.
  • Non-medication based therapies and non-opioid medications are preferred for treatment of chronic pain.
  • Doctors need to clearly explain the risks vs benefits of opioid therapy with their patients.
  • If decided as the best course of action for a particular patient, opioid therapy needs to be repeated re-evaluated to make sure it is still working to alleviate pain.
  • The prescription drug monitoring programs are useful tools that should be consulted prior to beginning therapy in order to help determine a patient’s history with opioids and risk for abuse or overdose.
  • Naloxone should be made available to patients using opioids for long-term therapy in order to prevent possible overdoses.
  • Access to medication-based treatments (methadone or buprenorphine) for dependent individuals should be provided.

Concluding Thoughts

In 1995 Purdue pharmaceuticals released OxyContin (oxycodone, one of the most common prescription opioid pain medications) and launched an enormous push for doctors to use opioids as the primary treatment for chronic pain. The enormous surge in in prescriptions of oxycodone (500% increase from 1999-2011) followed this marketing campaign. One of the most disturbing aspects revealed by the CDC’s report is that despite this surge in prescriptions, there is a complete lack of data on the effectiveness of opioids for long-term chronic pain therapy.

To be fair though, “Big Pharma” is not the sole culprit in this crisis. One argument is that pharma was responding to the need of clinicians for an increased demand by patients for management of chronic pain. It is very disturbing though that the push for the use of opioids for long-term management was initiated without any supporting evidence. This is another example of how medicine must be guided by evidence-based principles and not on personal beliefs and values or medical tradition and culture.

It’s important to remember that some patients do tolerate opioids well and these patients may find them beneficial at treating their chronic pain condition. The guidelines do stress frequent reevaluation of the benefits vs risks of opioids and for some patients benefits will outweigh the risks.

Finally, the CDC’s guidelines are not legally binding. These are recommendations and not laws or regulations. This means no doctors are not legally required to comply with any of the CDC’s recommendations. Hopefully some or all of these recommendations will be formalized into formal laws and regulations because many of them are extremely important in regulating these powerful and potentially dangerous drugs.

(Also check out the Diane Rehm Show’s hour-long discussion of the report. As usual, the show offers a high quality analysis and discussion from a panel of experts.)

Is Methadone an Effective Treatment for Heroin Addiction? YES!

methadose_0

NEW BLOG POST FOR ADDICTIONBLOG IS UP NOW! ALL ABOUT METHADONE.

CHECK IT OUT!

Why is Addiction a Brain Disease?

I started as a contributor for the blog network addictionblog.org.

addiction blog logo copy

Read my first post, published today!

WHY IS ADDICTION A BRAIN DISEASE?

Presidential Candidates Support an End to Addiction Stigma

(© Alan Cleaver flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/4104954991)
(© Alan Cleaver flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/4104954991)

Something remarkable is occurring in the way politicians are speaking about addiction (I’ve written about this previously). The discussion has shifted to focus on addiction as a disease and addicts as human beings requiring treatment, opposed to addicts as criminals requiring punishment or incarceration. Importantly, this shift away from the “war on drugs” rhetoric reaches across the political spectrum.

During the Democratic presidential debate held in December, Bernie Sanders called addiction “a disease and not a criminal activity” while Hilary Clinton and Martin O’Malley expressed similar sentiments.

New Hampshire, a state that has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation, recently held an Addiction Policy Forum at Southern New Hampshire University. Several GOP candidates attended the forum, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich. The candidates spoke personally about addiction, humanized addicts, and referred to addiction as a disease. Particularly moving was Carly Fiorina’s tragic story regarding her step-daughter’s struggle with addiction.

Despite these encouraging remarks, no candidate at the forum issued a call to increase accessibility to medication-assisted treatment of addiction.

NPR’s report on the forum offers an important analysis that I had not previously considered. One reason why the attitude in addiction is changing may be that the current opioid epidemic effects affects nearly every strata of society, including every race, whereas other drug epidemics in the past (such as the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80s and 90s) primarily affected only minority communities. NPR reports that some people refer to this as “the gentrification of the drug crisis.”

Even GOP candidate John Kasich of Ohio said, “This disease knows no bounds, knows no income, knows no neighborhood, it’s everywhere. And sometimes I wonder how African-Americans must have felt when drugs were awash in their community and nobody watched. Now it’s in our communities, and now all of a sudden we’ve got forums, and God bless us, but think about the struggles that other people had.”

A more political spin on the recent trend posted on the Hill blog discusses the rise of the “recovery voter”, an increasingly vocal group of people that place addiction as their number one issue. Clearly the presidential candidates are responding to the call for increasing governmental action on addiction.

I am cautiously optimistic about these positive trends but will reserve judgment until either Democratic or Republican candidates outline specific policy details.

Response to HuffPost Marc Lewis Interview on Addiction

So the Huffington Post runs a sub-blog on Addiction and Recovery and sometimes they present excellent reporting (for example, the piece on opioid addiction by Jason Cherkis who actually interviewed my boss, Dr. Mary Jeanne Kreek, for the article). But more often than not, they present quite variable reporting on addiction.  A recent interview with psychologist Marc Lewis, PhD is one such example.

Based on my own neuroscience of addiction background, I unfortunately find a number of Dr. Lewis’s claims not supported by scientific evidence and I believe the spread of such false statements can have the exact opposite of his intended effect—hurting more addicts rather than helping them. I do not claim to be the consensus voice of the addiction field but present my own arguments based on my own research and work done in the field. I also admit have not read any of Dr. Lewis’s books and am merely responding to the statements made in his interview. I include references at the end of the post.

The original interview between Carolyn Gregoire, Senior Health and Science Writer for Huffington Post and psychologist Marc Lewis, PhD

The questions (Q) by Carolyn Gregoire in the original interview are in bold, Dr. Lewis’s response (L) is italicized, and my response (S) is the un-italicized larger-size text.

Q: What’s wrong with the disease model of addiction? 

L: I know what scientists are looking at when they say addiction is a disease. I don’t dispute the findings, but I dispute the interpretation of them. They see addiction as a chronic brain disease — that’s how they define it in very explicit terms. 

My training is in emotional and personality development. I see addiction as a developmental process. So the brain changes that people talk about and have shown reliably in research can be seen as changes that are due to learning, to recurrent and deep learning experiences. But it’s not an abnormal experience and there’s nothing static or chronic about it, because people continue to change when they recover and come out of addiction. So the chronic label doesn’t make much sense.

S: The brain is a physical organ that operates under defined molecular biological principles. Drugs are physical chemical substances that perturb the molecular function of the brain. It is true that addiction is a process that can take months or even years to develop but the end result is a physical neurobiological change in how the brain functions [1, 2]. And when neuroscientists say chronic brain disease—or what my lab says A disease of the brain with behavioral manifestations—what we mean is that repeated drug use has caused a change is brain function which in turn results in a change in behavior. That doesn’t mean that this change is irreversible but, like other diseases, the first step to treatment is recognizing the underlying biological cause. Defining addiction as a chronic brain disease is not a judgment or interpretation of the development of addiction (which definitely does involve a learning and memory component [3, 4]) but is a statement asserting that drug addiction and drug cravings, compulsive drug use, and relapse are ultimately based on physical changes in the brain. It is important that we recognize this because otherwise we would not be able to treat it with effective and safe medications, in combination with other behavioral and psychological therapies.

Q: What’s problematic about the way we treat addiction, based on the disease model? 

L: Well, lots. The rehab industry is a terrible mess — you either wait on a long list for state-sponsored rehabs that are poorly run or almost entirely 12-Step, or else you pay vast amounts of money for residential rehabs that usually last for 30-90 days and people often go about five to six times. It’s very difficult to maintain your sobriety when you go home and you’re back in your lonely little apartment. 

What I emphasize is that the disease label makes it worse. You have experts saying, “You have a chronic brain disease and you need to get it treated. Why don’t you come here and spend $100,000 and we’ll help you treat it?” There’s a very strong motivation from the family, if not the individual, to go through this process, and then the treatments offered in these places are very seldom evidence-based, and the success rates are low. 

S: I strongly agree with this assessment. The rehab industry and many 12-step programs are ineffective, expensive, and rarely based on scientific evidence. The primary reason is that for decades addiction was thought of a problem of “spiritual weakness” or “lack of will power”. In reality addiction is a medical disorder based on physical neurobiological processes that make it seem like an addict has no “will power”, when in reality that addict’s brain has been hijacked to crave the drug compulsively and practically uncontrollably. However, again, I disagree that calling addiction a disease is what funnels people into rehab clinics. I believe it is the stigmatization of addiction that precludes treatment by doctors (unlike for every other disease), which in turn fuels admission into the rehab industry. Sadly, effective medications exist (such as methadone and buprenorphine for opioid addicts) that can flick a switch off in an addicts brain, satisfying their craving and allow them to live a normal live [5, 6]. Or medications such as naltrexone may be effective at reducing drinking in alcohol addicts but is not widely used [7, 8]. It is only recently that public acknowledgement of the biological basis of addiction and appropriate shifts in public policy are beginning to take place. Importantly, addiction medicine is beginning to become incorporated into medical school education and the first accredited residency programs in addiction medicine have been announced.

Q: There are lots of ways to trigger a humanistic response besides calling something a disease. So you would say that telling people who are in recovery for addiction that they have a “chronic disease” is actually doing them a disservice? 

L: Well, the chronic part is really a yoke that people carry around their necks. [Proponents of the disease model] say that this is important because this is how to prevent the stigmatization of addicts, which has been a standard part of our culture since Victorian times. 

But I think that’s just bullshit. I don’t think it feels good when someone tells you that you have a chronic disease that makes you do bad things. There are ways to reduce stigmatization by recognizing the humanity involved in addiction, the fact that it happens to many people and the fact that people really do try to get better — and most of them do. There are lots of ways to trigger a humanistic response besides calling something a disease.  

S: I agree that stigma is a huge problem with the treatment of drug addiction and mental health. Admitting you are an addict or depressed or know someone who suffers from these disorders is accompanied with unnecessary shame and fear of admission of the problem. I disagree that acknowledgement of medical/neurobiological basis of these disorders (ie calling them diseases) increases stigma but in fact do humanize patients. It helps alleviates shaming–both public and self–and can help an addict to seek evidence-based, medical treatment. Acknowledging the chronic nature of the disorder is not intended to make people feel bad but is merely truthfully stating the nature of the problem in hopes that it can be properly treated; denial can be lead to false and ineffective treatments.

Q: It can be difficult to comprehend the idea that something as severe as a heroin addiction is a developmental process. Can you explain that? 

L: First of all, let’s include the whole bouquet of addictions. So there’s substances — drugs and alcohol — and there’s gambling, sex, porn and some eating disorders. The main brain changes that we see in addiction are common to all of them, so they’re not specific to taking a drug like heroin, which creates a physical dependence. We see similar brain changes in a region called the striatum, which is an area that’s very central to addiction, which is involved in attraction and motivational drive. You see that with gambling as much as you do with cocaine or heroin. So that’s the first step of the argument — it’s not drugs, per se. 

From there, it’s important to recognize that certain drugs, like opiates, create physical dependency. There’s a double whammy there. They’re hard to get off because they’re addictive, like sex or porn is, but they also make you uncomfortable when you stop taking them. People try to go off of them and get extremely uncomfortable and then they’re drawn back to it — now for physical as well as psychological reasons. 

S: It is true that all addictions involve the striatum and there are similarities between the different addictions but to say that ALL addictions affect the brain in the exact same way is an absurd simplification. Different drugs absolutely DO affect the brain differently and have differences in addiction potential and relapse potential. To say addiction to heroin is identical to addiction to alcohol is identical to gambling addiction and therefore has nothing to do with the specific drug or behavior is just plain wrong. A wealth of evidence is gathering that addictions to different drugs progress differently and effect different brain systems, despite certain changes common to all [9]. For example, even opioids such as morphine and oxycodone, whose pharmacology are probably the best understood of any drug of abuse (they interact with mu opioid receptors [10]), have different behavioral and neurobiological effects that may affect addictions to the individual drugs (see my blog post). In a paper published by the lab I work for, the Kreek lab, cocaine administration in drug naïve mice (mice that have never had cocaine in their system) results in a rapid release of dopamine [11]. In contrast, some studies show that self-administration of an opioid drug only increases dopamine in rats that have already been exposed to the drug and not naïve animals [10]. The differences in the dopamine profiles between cocaine and opioids obviously means that how these two drugs affect the brain is different and is drug-specific! These are just a few small examples demonstrating the scientific inaccuracy of lumping all addictions into one general category or making the false claim that addiction has “nothing to do with the drug” (just as reducing cancer to a single disease is entirely inaccurate and harmful for its treatment).

Q: In the case of any type of addiction, what’s going on in the brain? 

L: The main region of interest is the striatum, and the nucleus accumbens, which is a part of the striatum. That region is responsible for goal pursuit, and it’s been around since before mammals. When we are attracted to goals, that region becomes activated by cues that tell you that the goal is available, in response to a stimulus. So you feel attraction, excitement and anticipation in response to this stimulus, and then you keep going after it. The more you go after that stimulus, the more you activate the system and the more you build and then refine synaptic pathways within the system. 

The other part of the brain here that’s very important is the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in conscious, deliberate control — reflection, judgment and decision-making. Usually there’s a balance between the prefrontal cortex and the striatum, so that you don’t get carried away by your impulses. With all kinds of addictions — drugs, behavior, people — the prefrontal system becomes less involved in the behavior because the behavior is repeated so many times. It becomes automatic, like riding a bike. 

S: Dr. Lewis’s assessment is basically correct. The core of the reward circuit involves dopamine-releasing neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) projecting to the nucleus accumbens (NAc; a part of the ventral striatum), which primarily drives motivated behavior and is involved in reinforcement of drug taking behavior. Conversely, the prefrontal cortex acts as a “stop” against this system and one model of addiction is the motivated-drive to seek the drug overpowers the “stop” signal from the prefrontal cortex. However, addiction is far more complex beyond just this basic system. Numerous other circuits and systems (hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, just to name a few) are also involved and each individual drug or rewarding stimuli can affect these circuits in disparate ways [12].

Q: What would a scientifically informed approach to addiction look like? 

L: That’s a really hard question because the fact that we know what’s happening in the brain doesn’t mean that we know what to do about it. 

A lot of recent voices have emphasized that addiction tends to be a social problem. Often addicts are isolated; they very often have difficult backgrounds in terms of childhood trauma, stress, abuse or neglect — so they’re struggling with some degree of depression or anxiety — and then they are socially isolated, they don’t know how to make friends and they don’t know how to feel good without their addiction. 

S: As I’ve stated above, a scientifically informed approach to addiction treatment already exists but is not widely used. However, one day an addict will hopefully be able to consult with a medical doctor to receive appropriate medications specific to their addiction, which will be combined with individual counseling by a psychiatrist or psychologist and a specific cognitive behavioral therapy or other psychological/behavioral therapy. The combination of medications and psychological therapy administered by trained medical professionals will be the future of evidence-based addiction medicine. Development of additional medications and/or psychological therapies for future treatment absolutely requires solid scientific evidence supporting their efficacy, which includes use of randomized control trials,  prior to widespread implementation.

But to call addiction primarily a social problem once again ignores all the basic neuroscience research that shows the powerful effects drugs have on the brain. It also ignores the prominent effect of genetics and how, due to a random role of the dice, an individual’s risk of becoming an addict can drastically increase [2, 13]. Plus the opioid epidemic that is currently sweeping the nation effects nearly every strata of society regardless of socioeconomic status, age, gender or race, and therefore cannot be explained simply by the hypothesis that addicts are people that are socially isolated. Why someone starts using drugs in the first place and how exactly they progress from a casual drug user to an addict are incredibly complex questions that scientists all over the world are attempting to answer through rigorous research. Being socially isolated or experiencing childhood trauma may certainly be factors that eschew some people towards the development of addiction but are definitely not the only ones.

Q: So what can we do about that?

L: Other than certain drugs that can reduce withdrawal symptoms, there’s nothing much medicine can offer, so we have to turn to psychology, and psychology actually offers a fair bit. There’s cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, dialectic behavioral therapy, and now there are mindfulness-based approaches, which I think are really exciting. 

There’s been good research from Sarah Bowen in Seattle [on Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention] showing that mindfulness practices can have a significant impact on people, even on people who are deeply addicted to opiates. 

S: This is a completely false statement: medications for treatment of addictions exist [14]! Once again, comprehensive systematic reviews of methadone and buprenorphine, two medications used for treatment of opioid cravings, have indisputably shown that these medications are effective at keeping addicts off of heroin compared to no medication [5, 6]. Furthermore, a number of other drugs are currently being explored for treatments to alcohol and cocaine addiction [15, 16]. Some people may consider methadone or buprenorphine replacing “one drug with another” but this is naïve view of how powerfully addictive opioid drugs can be and how use of these FDA-approved medications in combination with individual psychological counseling, can lead to gradual dose reduction and amelioration of cravings. Medication-assisted addiction treatment is designed to help addicts fight their craving so that they can live a normal life. With time, dose can be reduced and cravings can become less intense.

The study Dr. Lewis cites regarding mindfulness is well designed and intriguing. However, the study did not compare mindfulness-based approaches to medication-based approaches and is therefore incomplete [17]. Nevertheless, it is an interesting approach that may be able to be combined with medication-based treatment but definitely requires more research before its efficacy can be confirmed.

References

  1. Koob GF, Le Moal M. Addiction and the brain antireward system. Annual review of psychology. 2008;59:29-53.
  1. Kreek MJ, et al. Opiate addiction and cocaine addiction: underlying molecular neurobiology and genetics. The Journal of clinical investigation. 2012;122(10):3387-93.
  1. Kelley AE. Memory and addiction: shared neural circuitry and molecular mechanisms. Neuron. 2004;44(1):161-79.
  1. Tronson NC, Taylor JR. Addiction: a drug-induced disorder of memory reconsolidation. Current opinion in neurobiology. 2013;23(4):573-80.
  1. Mattick RP, et al. Methadone maintenance therapy versus no opioid replacement therapy for opioid dependence. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews. 2009(3):CD002209.
  1. Mattick RP, et al. Buprenorphine maintenance versus placebo or methadone maintenance for opioid dependence. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews. 2014;2:CD002207.
  1. Anderson P, et al. Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of policies and programmes to reduce the harm caused by alcohol. Lancet. 2009;373(9682):2234-46.
  1. Hartung DM, et al. Extended-release naltrexone for alcohol and opioid dependence: a meta-analysis of healthcare utilization studies. Journal of substance abuse treatment. 2014;47(2):113-21.
  1. Badiani A, et al. Opiate versus psychostimulant addiction: the differences do matter. Nature reviews Neuroscience. 2011;12(11):685-700.
  1. Fields HL, Margolis EB. Understanding opioid reward. Trends in neurosciences. 2015;38(4):217-25.
  1. Zhang Y, et al. Effect of acute binge cocaine on levels of extracellular dopamine in the caudate putamen and nucleus accumbens in male C57BL/6J and 129/J mice. Brain research. 2001;923(1-2):172-7.
  1. Russo SJ, Nestler EJ. The brain reward circuitry in mood disorders. Nature reviews Neuroscience. 2013;14(9):609-25.
  1. Kreek MJ, et al. Genetic influences on impulsivity, risk taking, stress responsivity and vulnerability to drug abuse and addiction. Nature neuroscience. 2005;8(11):1450-7.
  1. Kreek MJ, et al. Pharmacotherapy of addictions. Nature reviews Drug discovery. 2002;1(9):710-26.
  1. Addolorato G, et al. Novel therapeutic strategies for alcohol and drug addiction: focus on GABA, ion channels and transcranial magnetic stimulation. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2012;37(1):163-77.
  1. Bidlack JM. Mixed kappa/mu partial opioid agonists as potential treatments for cocaine dependence. Advances in pharmacology. 2014;69:387-418.
  1. Bowen S, et al. Relative efficacy of mindfulness-based relapse prevention, standard relapse prevention, and treatment as usual for substance use disorders: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA psychiatry. 2014;71(5):547-56.

Promising Shifts in Policy Towards Addiction Prevention and Treament

Spilled prescription medication --- Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis
Spilled prescription medication — Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis

 

Normally a search for drug addiction in Google news pulls up a similar thread of articles: arrests of dealers and addicts, big drug busts, a crime committed by a user or dealer, somebodies mug shot. Basically, the news tends to cover only the drug enforcement and criminal aspects of the drug addiction problem. This is unsurprising since for the past few decades the lens in which we view addicts and addiction has been smeared by the “War on Drugs”, which views drug users as criminals and deviants and seeks to punish rather than treat. However, with advances in medical technology, advances in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and a host of related fields, we understand addiction at the neurochemical and physiological level better than we ever have before. A shift in attitude that acknowledges addiction as a medical disease that needs to be treated as such (well established in the scientific community) is finally making its way into public consciousness, and most importantly, public policy.

SFN 2015 LogoI was recently at the 2015 Society for Neuroscience Conference, an enormous gathering of neuroscientist from around the world, held Oct 17-21 in Chicago. The conference hosts an overwhelming number of lectures, symposia, and workshops for scientists to share the latest developments in research in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, learning and memory, brain development, addiction, and many others neuroscience sub-disciplines. Several special lectures on neuroscience related-topics are also held and I had the pleasure of attending one of these special lectures given by the Honorable Jed S. Rakoff, Senior US District Judge for the Southern District of New York and founding member of the MacArthur Foundation Project on Law and Neuroscience, which researches issues on the intersection of law and neuroscience. Judge Rakoff spoke on how new advances in neuroscience research such as improved neuroimaging technologies and greater understanding into human cognition and decision-making, is changing how the law treats defendants. Significantly, Judge Rakoff spoke frequently about addiction, and he acknowledges what many do, that those arrested for non-violent offenses should be treated, not brutalized. However, he explained that many judge’s hands are tied when it comes to sentencing due to laws in place that set mandatory minimums for drug offenders. Judge Rakoff believes these mandatory minimum laws should be eliminated if progress is to be made toward providing treatment, rather than prison sentences, for drug addicts. It was refreshing to hear this come from such a distinguished judge and I hope it is a bellwether for changes in our legal system.

Of course, laws cannot changes without lawmakers to change them. But we may be seeing the beginning of shift in drug addiction policy for the first time in years.

The epidemic of addiction to prescription opioids and heroin has been making news for months now. I’ve blogged about this epidemic in several posts. One covering a review article describing the epidemic, another sharing an excellent article in the Huffington Post about the epidemic and available treatments for opioid addiction, and most recently, an important report released by the Centers for Disease Control that names opioid addiction as one of the counties top public health crises. Following this latter groundbreaking report by the CDC, policy-makers are finally starting to wake up to the problem.

In a speech in on October 21 in Charleston, West Virginia, one of the areas in the country worst hit by the opioid problem, President Obama held an hour-long public forum in which he promised $133 million dollars to combating the prescription opioid and heroin problem. The President gave about a 15-minute introduction to the event, which entailed some of the most refreshing comments about addiction to ever come from a US President.

Watch the full speech here:

President Obama began by citing shocking statistics stated in the CDC report concerning the surge in deaths due to prescription opioids, “More Americans now die from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes…The majority involve legal prescription drugs.” He went on to talk about heroin as an extension of prescription opioid abuse, “4 out of 5 heroin users start with prescription opioids”.

Of special significance was the shift in language he used to describe addiction and addicts, which contrasts strongly with the “War on Drugs” rhetoric of the previous administration. Obama said, “This is an illness and we have to treat is as such. We have to change our mindset”, which is something that scientists have been arguing for years but is just now being acknowledged by a US President.

Progress towards treating addiction cannot be made unless the biological and medical realities of the illness are understood and addicts are treated as patients rather than criminals. Indeed, stigma towards addicts is one of the biggest hurdles towards reforming public health policy and attitudes towards addiction and President Obama admitted this, “We can’t fight this epidemic without eliminating stigma.”

Some progress has been made under Obama’s watch and he and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell outlined several addiction reforms. One important change already in place is a stipulation of the Affordable Care Act that requires insurance to cover treatment for substance abuse disorders. Secretary Burwell outlined three points at the forum in West Virgina for an “evidence-based strategy” towards addiction prevention and treatment:

  • Point 1: Changing prescribing practices. This is necessary to stem the over prescription of opioids and the dependence to the drugs that develops in some patients as result.
  • Point 2: Expand medication-assisted treatment programs and to make sure patients can have access to treatment and behavioral counseling that can help them.
  • Point 3: Increased access to naloxone. Naloxone counteracts the effects of opioids and should be a standard medication on hand for any first responder that deals with overdoses.

The details about implementing these strategies were not provided though.

However, Obama’s speech may be coming too late, as Dr. Andrew Kolodny, founder of the Phoenix House Treatment facilities in New York, believes. As reported in New York Times, Dr. Kolodyn is disappointed with Obama’s progress and thinks he has waited too long to take action and says that opioid epidemic problem has gotten considerably worse over under Obama’s watch.

I am anxious to see what changes may occur within the last year of Obama’s presidency in respect to the opioid epidemic. However, if more permanent changes are not made in the law, a conservative Republican president could easily over turn any changes made and revert to a failed Reagan-era “War on Drugs” approach.