Archive for the ‘Drug Abuse’ Category

Drug Dependence in Pennsylvania: Regulating Opioid Prescribing Practices

March 11, 2018

graphic-drugabuse_xxThe Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared opioid addiction a public health emergency within theUnited States during 2017. Opioid-related overdose deaths have steadily climbed over the past decade with more than 40,000 deaths reported in 2016, five times that seen only a decade prior. The problem arose in the late 1990’s when the prescribing rate of opioid pain relievers increased, with little thought to the devastating effects it would have in leaving patients addicted and dependent on opioids, inciting the nationwide opioid epidemic we currently face.

Evidence from 2016 showed that Pennsylvania fell into the top 5 states with the highest rates of death due to drug overdose, with a rate of 37.9 per 100,000. The state should enact policy addressing opioid addiction. To implement rapid change, the length of time that opioid prescriptions are written for should be reduced to decrease potential of dependence. The prescription of opioids for an acute pain may lead to long term use, and the probability of long term use increases with the length of the initial prescription,4 with the probability spiking after the 3rd and 5th days, and then again on the 31st day. Many states have enacted legislation to change the way pain is being treated, to adopt alternate methods for pain control, set dosing limits, and most importantly, limit first time opioid prescriptions to a set number of days. Currently, Pennsylvania is set at 14 days limit of a first-time supply for an acute problem (excluding cancer care, palliative care and long-term use). Policies should focus on a reducing prescription length from 14 to 3- 5 days, to minimize risk of opioid dependence.




In order to prevent the crisis in Pennsylvania from getting worse, it is crucial that state policy-makers collaborate with pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and patients to incorporate preventative solutions into drug-related policies and regulations. One way to address this is to reduce the number of days doctors can prescribe opioids to non-cancer and non- palliative patients from 2 weeks to 3-5 days in the coming year.



The Opioid Epidemic: Decriminalization, legalization, or offer of treatment as an alternative to criminal justice penalties for nonviolent users of opioids

March 11, 2018

Every day, more than 100 Americans die from drug overdose. This epidemic has lowered American life expectancy in 2015 and 2016 for the first time in decades, with drug overdose now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50.

opioid epidemics by numbers


The use of illicit drugs is a drain on the nation’s financial resources. In 2007, the cost of illicit drug use was estimated to be about $200 billion related to lost productivity, health care and law enforcement ($11 billion annually). The medical complications of untreated substance use disorder also drive health care system costs. Hospitalizations for opioid use disorder rose from nearly 302 000 to more than 520 000 from 2002 to 2012, and costs for such care quadrupled to $15 billion in 2012. Charges for hospitalization for opioid use disorder with serious infections also quadrupled over the same period to $700 million.

Over the past 40 years, many jurisdictions established rigid punishments for nonviolent drug offenses, including mandatory incarceration. However, there has been growing support from health care professionals, public health authorities and patient advocacy groups for the idea that public policy should be reoriented to emphasize prevention and treatment of substance use disorders through public and individual health interventions rather than excessive reliance on criminalization and incarceration.

Health Care National Organizations new focus is to ensure guidelines are followed in management of chronic pain, pharmacists are establishing prescription drug monitoring programs at state and national level, addiction medicine specialists recently released a scientific guideline on how to treat opioid dependance, even top 16 health care payers came together to announce new reimbursement policies that will promote and reward substance use disorder treatments that aligns with principles of care, while the patient advocacy groups are trying to remove the stigma surrounding addiction and promoting medication-assisted treatment: all pointing towards the new trend in academia, industry and general public to treat opioid addiction like any other disease.

Now is the time that our justice department, the key player in war on drugs, moves beyond deploying criminal law enforcement tools on patients and embrace alternative approaches such as providing treatment, counseling and mental health services to the addicts that have proven to be a success in other countries.

Sweet home Alabama? Criminalization of Drug Use During Pregnancy

March 10, 2018

Alabama has some of the toughest criminal drug laws in the country. The conservative state legislature has introduced a myriad of acts targeting drug use in the past decade, including a  “Chemical Endangerment of a Child,” law in 2006. Originally written to reduce children’s exposed to drug addiction, a 2012 case in the Supreme Court of Alabama interpreted the law to include unborn infants, even if the fetus is not viable.

While the law was created with good intentions, the criminalization of drug use during pregnancy has led to several negative consequences. Among them, pregnant women must choose between their health and risking conviction. The fear is compounded by the fact that women in Alabama have been drug tested at medical facilities without their knowledge. Women interviewed by Amnesty international in Alabama expressed fear in seeking care at professional offices, leading to delays in critical antenatal care. One woman stated, “In my town, I was worried about going to the doctor because if you test positive [for drugs], bam, you’re slapped with a ‘chemical endangerment’ charge.”   Once convicted, women face jail time, even while pregnant, and revocation of parental custody. Incarcerated women may have not access to critical drug treatment and antenatal care.

Alabama is an extreme example, but child assault laws for drug use during pregnancy has become more common. Given the bleak outlook of women convicted with the law, several recommendations can be made:

  • Alabama legislature should take steps to decriminalize drug use during pregnancy, as supported by many key stakeholder organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association.
  • Clear procedures should be made for health providers in states that criminalize drug use during pregnancy. Recommendations can include open discussions with patients on drug use during pregnancy, and full transparency on drug testing procedures. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology already provides standards of care and could provide this guidance.
  • Expansion of residential drug treatment programs targeting pregnant women, that accept Medicaid insurance. A pilot study for federal grants to support drug treatment programs is already underway with the Improving Treatment for Pregnant and Postpartum Women Act of 2016, but should be fast-tracked and expanded to include more states

Marijuana: A Gray Matter

August 20, 2017
Featured photo credit

Marijuana remains a Class I controlled substance in federal law, denoting it as a drug with high abuse potential and no acceptable medical use. However, it is legal for medical use in 29 states and the District of Columbia, and is legal for recreational use as well in 8 states and the District of Columbia. States are under enormous pressure to enact marijuana legalization laws due to widespread public support for the policy change and public disdain for the current federal classification, which is seen as irrational and duplicitous given the much laxer legal status of more dangerous substances such as alcohol and tobacco.

This is not to say that marijuana is not dangerous. As an internist and pediatrician, I am keenly aware of marijuana’s potential negative effects on adolescent and adult health and development, the potential for addiction, and the finding of increased marijuana-related traffic accidents in states with legal recreational use. But it is important to note that, unlike other Schedule I substances, rates of physical addiction are much lower, overdose nearly nonexistent, and no change in rates of fatal traffic accidents has been observed. Marijuana is by no means benign, but it is regulated out of proportion to its potential for harm.

Activists on the marijuana issue used to typically fall into three camps: legalize it, legalize medical use, or keep it banned. But increasingly, the two extreme views are more prominent in the public arena. Marijuana is not a black-and-white issue. It can be beneficial, and it can be harmful. Current federal policy listing marijuana as a substance with no acceptable medical use is not consistent with evidence supporting significant efficacy in pain states, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions. Furthermore, maintaining its illegal status at the federal level does nothing to prevent state legalization, while it does prevent adequate research so that smart, evidence-based policies and regulations can be enacted.

I believe the federal government should reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III substance: a drug with potential for abuse less than the drugs in Schedules I and II, with currently accepted medical use in treatment, and with moderate or low risk of physical dependence but high risk of psychological dependence. This would be consistent with current evidence, would allow research study while continuing regulatory restrictions, and may also reduce pressures on states to legalize recreational use. Marijuana reclassification would allow the federal government to stay engaged and help control the discussion around the benefits and risks of marijuana use, rather than sitting idly by as an unrelenting wave of legalization sweeps across the nation.

A bipartisan bill has been proposed in the House of Representatives calling for marijuana rescheduling. Call your representative to support this evidence-based policy change.

Improving Access to Buprenorphine: A Medication-Assisted Treatment to Address United States’ Opioid Epidemic

August 20, 2017

The United States recently declared the opioid epidemic as a national emergency. Buprenorphine is a prescribed partial agonist used in opioid medication-assisted treatments (MATs); it is particularly unique given that it can be administered in settings outside of opioid treatment programs like physician offices. Alarmingly, a recent study found that nearly 1 million people with opioid addictions in the U.S. could not access MATs due to prescribing capacity constraints, demonstrated in the figure below. Accordingly, it is critical that the U.S. focus on lifting the patient caps for prescribing buprenorphine.

AJPH Graph of Opioid Treatment Access Rates, July 2015

Source: American Journal of Public Health, July 2015


Per the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 (DATA), the number of patients that qualified physicians could treat with buprenorphine was capped at 30 patients at once, during the first year, expandable to 100 patients in the second year. The 2016 passage of the United States Code. Section 303(g)(2) of the Controlled Substances Act allows qualified physicians (who have treated 100 patients at once, for at least one year) the ability to apply for the treatment of 275 patients, at once. Key advocates who were successful in increasing the patient caps include the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, American Medical Association, American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), and the National Association of County and City Health Officials.


A RAND study found that less than 10 percent of waived physicians treated more than 75 patients with buprenorphine, prior to the passage of the 2016 increase in patient caps. There are also great variations in the number of actively prescribing waived physicians in urban and rural communities. Lifting the patient caps for waived physicians is the most immediate and effective method of making buprenorphine available to a greater portion of the population, as it can be administered in any office-based setting; this policy change may also mitigate the “black market” for buprenorphine, which has been perpetuated by its limited access. An important component of the proposed change is that it will maintain the requirement for physician waivers. This will ensure that an appropriate standard of quality is met, and potentially limit the increases in the number of “pill mills” as compared to current trends, since those consumers may gain access to the full treatment through the proposed policy change.

Dr. Kelly Clark, president of ASAM, was succinct in her argument against patient caps: “This medication [buprenorphine] and this specialty of addiction medicine represent the only areas in medicine in which physicians are shackled and have a maximum number of patients that we can treat with an evidence-based medication…These limits are not evidence-based or clinically based.” It is critical that health care and public health professionals leverage their networks and join the fight to advocate for increased access to buprenorphine by lifting the patient caps for qualified physicians. The U.S. must take imminent action to provide an appropriate treatment response to the growing opioid epidemic.

Supervised Injection Facilities to Mitigate Rhode Island’s Overdose Crisis

August 20, 2017

kitchen floor ODjpg

Rhode Island, the smallest state in the United States, had 336 overdose-related deaths in 2016, double the number of deaths in 2010. Since 2011, illicit drug overdose deaths increased 250% with the crisis expanding to include a 15-fold increase in fentanyl-related deaths.

In August 2015, Governor Gina Raimondo signed an executive order, directing the Department of Health and Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals to co-convene an Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force with community and stakeholder participation. The Task Force developed an action plan aiming to reduce overdose deaths by one third by 2018.


Source: Rhode Island Department of Health

Because the number of deaths continued to climb, a second executive order was signed in July 2017, calling for community and school-based prevention education, and a directive to explore “a comprehensive harm reduction strategy for intravenous drug users to decrease risk of overdose, infection, and assault.”  

Harm reduction strategies include distribution of clean needles, outreach, peer support, naloxone training, substitution therapy, and supervised injection facilities.  These approaches mitigate the adverse effects of high-risk behaviors associated with drug use by reducing stigma, and legal and social barriers to care.

Vancouver SIF

Source: The Stranger

Supervised injection facilities (SIFs) are an effective public health strategy because their impact is multi-faceted and based in harm reduction. SIFs reduce death from overdose, increase access to services for healthcare and recovery, and improve community safety.

With good results in Canada and campaigns for SIFs in New York and other US locations, Rhode Island is not alone in this crisis. Supervised injection facilities can help stem the exponential increase in deaths and unbearable toll this overdose crisis is taking on individuals, families, and the state.  It is crucial that the Overdose Task Force and Governor Raimondo support local implementation of this evidence-based life-saving strategy.

When fixing the opioid crisis, please don’t block access to those that actually need them

August 20, 2017

Opioids contribute to the 142 people that die each day in America of drug overdose. The President has claimed that he plans to declare a state of emergency, an unprecedented move, typically reserved for natural disasters and disease outbreaks that are more acute in nature, which has the potential to unleash access to beneficial solutions such as addiction treatment.

There are 2 ways to declare a state of emergency: via the Stafford Act, which is typically reserved for natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, and the Public Health Service Act, which is focused on medical issues.  Both would unlock resources for proposed solutions – the former focused on law enforcement and measures further limiting access while the latter, coming from the secretary of health and human services, focused more on comprehensive medical measures. Please choose carefully.

The figure is a line chart showing drug overdose deaths involving opioids, by type of opioid, in the United States during 2000-2014.

Rates of opioid-related overdose by type of opioid taken from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC breaks that number down. More than half of overdose deaths involve opioids, either prescription opioids or heroin. Overall rates of overdose have dramatically increased between 2000 and 2014.  However, death rate increases since 2010 have been driven by heroin while rates from prescription opioids have plateaued or decreased, indicating that recent policy focused on blocking access may be simply shifting the small proportion that actually become addicts toward a more dangerous, means of getting high.

Few treatment options exist for people that live with chronic, severe pain. The nation needs non-opioid medicines that are effective at relieving severe pain, but that are safe and not potentially abusive. Until then, adequate management is complex and requires a balance of pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches, which requires provider education and provider time with patients.


Further exacerbating the issue, prescribers and pharmacist, fearful of litigation and criminalization, withhold prescription opioids from those that legitimately need it. Inadequate pain management impacts not only quality of life, but deteriorates activities of daily living and leads to depression, anxiety, and “self-medication” with more harmful substances such as alcohol.

Despite often erroneously interchanged, there is a distinction between physical dependence and addiction – perhaps the single most important nuance to understand when managing pain and deciding on policy that impacts people with pain. Chronic pain, by definition, does not go away, but the opioid receptors in the brain develop a tolerance, eventually diminishing the pain-relieving effects of opioids at their current dose. This is dependence, and it is normal. Doses need to be incrementally increased over time to provide the same level of relief. Those with very long-standing pain may need very high doses. Policy that is focused on restricting access to high doses seems to not take this into consideration.

Image result for hhs 5-point strategy opioid

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services strategies for combating the opioid crisis

A decision that emphasizes walled boarders and law enforcement will likely not be effective at reducing overdose and may actually worsen the issue of access further for an often silent, but suffering multitude that are not getting the care that exists, but is increasingly not within their reach. We need policy that pushes people to life-saving measures such as comprehensive pain management, access to addiction treatment without fear or stigma, provider education, and research to enhance our understanding of pain and addiction.

Opioid Taxation: A Call for Support of California Assembly Bill 1512

August 16, 2017

California continues to aggressively fight the U.S. national opioid epidemic, taking active steps to develop hub-and-spoke opioid treatment programs, launching health plans to reduce opioid prescriptions, and enacting tougher laws governing clinical opioid use.


A new strategy targets drug manufacturers: California Assemblyman Kevin McCarty proposed an amendment to AB 1512 which would enact taxes of $0.01/mg upon the sale of opioid ingredients from manufacturer to wholesaler. Funds collected would then be placed within the bill’s newly created Opioid Prevention and Rehabilitation Program Fund, and distributed to rehabilitation and addiction programs. As physicians and active community members, we strongly support AB 1512.

The bill was amended in the California Assembly on May 9, 2017, is currently in its second hearing within the committee, and its tax-collection component requires 66% approval in both the Senate and Assembly. However, because the proposed tax affects multinational corporations’ financial health and might negatively impact jobs, significant opposition exists against this legislation.


One vocal opponent to AB 1512 is the California Chamber of Commerce (CalChamber). CalChamber remains the largest organization advocating on behalf of businesses and maintains that AB 1512 is “unfair,” likely to “reduce the workforce” and “increase drug prices for ill patients who need these medications the most.”

In addition to supporting AB 1512, we call on CalChamber to reconsider its negative position and instead influence its constituents to support the legislation. CalChamber’s argument fails to recognize negative externalities and high costs that businesses currently absorb with the opioid epidemic unchecked. CalChamber must recognize that increased opioid pain prescriptions and resultant fatal and non-fatal overdoses lead to overutilization of hospitals and emergency rooms, directly contribute to rising healthcare costs. Moreover, opioids serve as gateway drugs to illicit substances such as heroin, spilling into local communities, further consuming emergency, police, and public and private resources.


Improved Access to Naloxone in Ontario’s Fight against Opioid Overdoses:

August 11, 2017



Over the past decade Ontario has seen a steady rise in the number of opioid related deaths and narcotic misuse across all socioeconomic groups in the province. Of particular concern is that despite ongoing provincial initiatives little has been accomplished to prevent the rampant abuse and misuse of narcotic pain medications. The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis of epic proportions. Recently it has been estimated that 1 in 8 deaths in Ontario is related to opioid abuse.

The government has rolled out a variety of initiatives to combat the problem. They have stopped paying for higher-strength narcotic pain medications through the provincial drug benefit payment plan in an effort to reduce the abuse of these agents. The provincial government has also increased funding for addiction services, and set out new guidelines for opioid use in chronic pain. (

These recent policy initiatives from the provincial government to combat the provinces growing opioid crisis are welcome news. The problem represents a complex health issue with potentially devastating consequences for individuals, families and the communities they live in. Unfortunately the crisis continues to grow and these efforts do not go far enough to help prevent the senseless deaths that are occurring every day on the streets of our cities from accidental overdoses.

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Ontario opioid toxicity deaths, by drug – 2002-13. Data from Ontario Coroner.

Historically the use of the lifesaving antidote for an opioid overdose, Naloxone was only available to a select group of healthcare providers like physicians and paramedics. Most recently this past year the provincial government reduced the restrictions on this lifesaving medication making it available in local pharmacies to consumers without requiring a prescription.

This is a welcome policy change that will save lives….unless you live in Grassy Narrows, Attawapiskat, Pikangikum, White Dog, or any of the other remote Northern Ontario First Nation reserves where there are no pharmacies or publicly available free Naloxone kits. You may not find these communities listed on the provincial government website ‘Where to get a free naloxone kit’ but deaths from overdoses are happening here at alarming rates.first nation grassy

While there is strong support for this new policy change, simply removing the legal barriers and improving the availability of this life saving intervention may not equal improved accessibility for some residents of Ontario.


Major health disparities exist amongst remote First Nations communities living in Northern Ontario. These populations are socially marginalized and medically underserviced. Access to healthcare for these populations is limited as is the quality, equity and timeliness of the healthcare they do receive. This results in disproportionately high burdens of disease and poor health outcomes. First Nations youth have higher rates of suicide and an increase prevalence of risk taking behaviours which can all lead to higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse and ultimately death from overdose.


The government’s expansion of initiatives and services which take aim at combating the opioid epidemic in Canada need to target all Canadians and not just those living in urban centers. If the government is serious about broadening access to initiatives like free Naloxone it needs to couple that with initiatives to ensure these initiatives reach the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society like the remote First Nation reserves of Northern Ontario. There needs to be a global expansion of healthcare funding for Aboriginal populations that aims to reduce the health disparities that currently exist in these populations.  Otherwise available does not equal accessible.


Skyrocketing price of the “life-saving antidote” for the opioid epidemic in New York State; have the drug companies gone too far?

March 12, 2017

 Figure 3-page-001(        

Data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows a fourfold rise in overdose deaths related to prescription opioids in the United States since 2000 (figure 1). In New York State (NYS), opioid related hospital admissions peaked in 2014 (figure 2), prompting implementation of policies to address these concerns. One of the major executions by the NYS Department of Health was issuance of a standing order authorizing licensed pharmacists to dispense naloxone, an opioid antidote, to persons without needing a prescription.

Figure 1


Figure 2

Figure 2-page-001


Naloxone counteracts the dangerous effects of opioids with minimal or no adverse events if mistakenly administered to persons not suffering an overdose. The demand for naloxone has significantly increased now that the State has requested widespread availability for the public to administer naloxone in cases of suspected overdose. However, the rising costs of naloxone have made it difficult to meet these demands. The injectable version of the drug has increased significantly over the past few years. The price for naloxone nasal spray in the CVS chain’s New York stores is up to $110 for people who buy it without a prescription and insurance. An auto-injector version of naloxone called Evzio, that works like Epi-pen, is $2,250 for a single-dose injector.

Increasing access to naloxone for the public is inadequate if prices continue to rise. The State and the manufacturers of these products are our stakeholders. These parties may reduce costs by increasing manufacturers, and offering consistent prices and discounts. Pushback from the manufacturers to lower prices thrives in that they are limited in number and have raised costs to meet rising demand. The community may argue that increasing the availability of antidotes may promote drug overdose. Thus we appeal for an alliance between the state and the manufacturers to reduce prices of these life-saving medications to curtail the opioid epidemic.

Written by Asma Akter, Elan Gorshein, Nidhi Madan