Taking On the Scourge of Opioids
On March 1, 2017, Maryland governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency. Heroin and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, had killed 1,468 Maryland residents in the first nine months of 2016, up 62% from the same period in 2015. Speaking at a command center of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency near Baltimore, the governor announced additional funding to strengthen law enforcement, prevention, and treatment services. “The reality is that this threat is rapidly escalating,” Hogan said.
And it is escalating across the country. Florida governor Rick Scott followed Hogan’s lead in May, declaring a public-health emergency after requests for help from local officials across the state. Arizona governor Doug Ducey did the same in June. In Ohio, some coroners have run out of space for the bodies of overdose victims and have to use a mobile, refrigerated morgue. In West Virginia, state burial funds have been exhausted burying overdose victims. Opioid orphans are lucky if their grandparents can raise them; if not, they are at the mercy of foster-care systems that are now overflowing with the children of addicted parents.
An estimated 2.5 million Americans abuse or are addicted to opioids — a class of highly addictive drugs that includes Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin, and heroin. Most experts believe this is an undercount, and all agree that the casualty rate is unprecedented. At peak years in an earlier heroin epidemic, from 1973 to 1975, there were 1.5 fatalities per 100,000 Americans. In 2015, the rate was 10.4 per 100,000. In West Virginia, ground zero of the crisis, it was over 36 per 100,000. In raw numbers, more than 33,000 individuals died in 2015 — nearly equal to the number of deaths from car crashes and double the number of gun homicides. Meanwhile, the opioid-related fatalities continue to mount, having quadrupled since 1999.
The roots of the crisis can be traced to the early 1990s when physicians began to prescribe opioid painkillers more liberally. In parallel, overdose deaths from painkillers rose until about 2011. Since then, heroin and synthetic opioids have briskly driven opioid-overdose deaths; they now account for over two-thirds of victims. Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, are made mainly in China, shipped to Mexico, and trafficked here. Their menace cannot be overstated.
Fentanyl is 50 times as potent as heroin and can kill instantly. People have been found dead with needles dangling from their arms, the syringe barrels still partly full of fentanyl-containing liquid. One fentanyl analog, carfentanil, is a big-game tranquilizer that’s a staggering 5,000 times more powerful than heroin. This spring, “Gray Death,” a combination of heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil, and other synthetics, has pushed the bounds of lethal chemistry even further. The death rate from synthetics has increased by more than 72% over the space of a single year, from 2014 to 2015. They have transformed an already terrible problem into a true public-health emergency.
The nation has weathered drug epidemics before, but the current affliction — a new plague for a new century, in the words of Nicholas Eberstadt — is different. Today, the addicted are not inner-city minorities, though big cities are increasingly reporting problems. Instead, they are overwhelmingly white and rural, though middle- and upper-class individuals are also affected. The jarring visual of the crisis is not an urban “gang banger” but an overdosed mom slumped in the front seat of her car in a Walmart parking lot, toddler in the back.
It’s almost impossible to survey this devastating tableau and not wonder why the nation’s response has been so slow in coming. Jonathan Caulkins, a drug-policy expert at Carnegie Mellon, offers two theories. One is geography. The prescription-opioid wave crashed down earliest in fly-over states, particularly small cities and rural areas, such as West Virginia and Kentucky, without nationally important media markets. Earlier opioid (heroin) epidemics raged in urban centers, such as New York, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
The second of Caulkins’s plausible explanations is the absence of violence that roiled inner cities in the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon called drug abuse “public enemy number one.” Dealers do not engage in shooting wars or other gang-related activity. As purveyors of heroin established themselves in the U.S., Mexican bosses deliberately avoided inner cities where heroin markets were dominated by violent gangs. Thanks to a “drive-through” business model perfected by traffickers and executed by discreet runners — farm boys from western Mexico looking to make quick money — heroin can be summoned via text message or cell phone and delivered, like pizza, to homes or handed off in car-to-car transactions. Sources of painkillers are low profile as well. Typically pills are obtained (or stolen) from friends or relatives, physicians, or dealers. The “dark web,” too, is a conduit for synthetics.
It’s hard to miss, too, that this time around, the drug crisis is viewed differently. Heroin users today are widely seen as suffering from an illness. And because that illness has a pale complexion, many have asked, “Where was the compassion for black people?” A racial element cannot be denied, but there are other forces at play, namely that Americans are drug-war weary and law enforcement has incarceration fatigue. It also didn’t help that, in the 1970s, officers were only loosely woven into the fabric of the inner-city minority neighborhoods that were hardest hit. Today, in the small towns where so much of the epidemic plays out, the crisis is personal. Police chiefs, officers, and local authorities will likely have at least one relative, friend, or neighbor with an opioid problem.
If there is reason for optimism in the midst of this crisis, it is that national and local politicians and even police are placing emphasis on treatment over punishment. And, without question, the nation needs considerably more funding for treatment; Congress must step up. Yet the much-touted promise of treatment — and particularly of anti-addiction medications — as a panacea has already been proven wrong. Perhaps “we can’t arrest our way out of the problem,” as officials like to say, but nor are we treating our way out of it. This is because many users reject treatment, and, if they accept it, too many drop out. Engaging drug users in treatment has turned out to be one of the biggest challenges of the epidemic — and one that needs serious attention.
The near-term forecast for this American Carnage, as journalist Christopher Caldwell calls it, is grim. What can be done?
ROOTS OF A CRISIS
In the early 1990s, campaigns for improved treatment of pain gained ground. Analgesia for pain associated with cancer and terminal illness was relatively well accepted, but doctors were leery of medicating chronic conditions, such as joint pain, back pain, and neurological conditions, lest patients become addicted. Then in 1995 the American Pain Society recommended that pain be assessed as the “fifth vital sign” along with the standard four (blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and respiratory rate). In 2001 the influential Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations established standards for pain management. These standards did not mention opioids, per se, but were interpreted by many physicians as encouraging their use.
These developments had a gradual but dramatic effect on the culture of American medicine. Soon, clinicians were giving an entire month’s worth of Percocet or Lortab to patients with only minor injuries or post-surgical pain that required only a few days of opioid analgesia. Compounding the matter, pharmaceutical companies engaged in aggressive marketing to physicians.
The culture of medical practice contributed as well. Faced with draconian time pressures, a doctor who suspected that his patient was taking too many painkillers rarely had time to talk with him about it. Other time-consuming pain treatments, such as physical therapy or behavioral strategies, were, and remain, less likely to be covered by insurers. Abbreviated visits meant shortcuts, like a quick refill that may not have been warranted, while the need for addiction treatment was overlooked. In addition, clinicians were, and still are, held hostage to ubiquitous “patient-satisfaction surveys.” A poor grade mattered because Medicare and Medicaid rely on these assessments to help determine the amount of reimbursement for care. Clearly, too many incentives pushed toward prescribing painkillers, even when it went against a doctor’s better judgment.
The chief risk of liberal prescribing was not so much that the patient would become addicted — though it happens occasionally — but rather that excess medication fed the rivers of pills that were coursing through many neighborhoods. And as more painkillers began circulating, almost all of them prescribed by physicians, more opportunities arose for non-patients to obtain them, abuse them, and die. OxyContin formed a particularly notorious tributary. Available since 1996, this slow-release form of oxycodone was designed to last up to 12 hours (about six to eight hours longer than immediate-release preparations of oxycodone, such as Percocet). A sustained blood level was meant to be a therapeutic advantage for patients with unremitting pain. To achieve long action, each OxyContin tablet was loaded with a large amount of oxycodone.
Packing a large dose into a single pill presented a major unintended consequence. When it was crushed and snorted or dissolved in water and injected, OxyContin gave a clean, predictable, and enjoyable high. By 2000, reports of abuse of OxyContin began to surface in the Rust Belt — a region rife with injured coal miners who were readily prescribed OxyContin, or, as it came to be called, “hillbilly heroin.” Ohio along with Florida became the “pill mill” capitals of the nation. These mills were advertised as “pain clinics,” but were really cash-only businesses set up to sell painkillers in high volume. The mills employed shady physicians who were licensed to prescribe but knew they weren’t treating authentic patients.
Around 2010 to 2011, law enforcement began cracking down on pill mills. In 2010, OxyContin’s maker, Purdue Pharma, reformulated the pill to make it much harder to crush. In parallel, physicians began to re-examine their prescribing practices and to consider non-opioid options for chronic-pain management. More states created prescription registries so that pharmacists and doctors could detect patients who “doctor shopped” for painkillers and even forged prescriptions. (Today, all states except Missouri have such a registry.) Last year, the American Medical Association recommended that pain be removed as a “fifth vital sign” in professional medical standards.
Controlling the sources of prescription pills was completely rational. Sadly, however, it helped set the stage for a new dimension of the opioid epidemic: heroin and synthetic opioids. Heroin — cheaper and more abundant than painkillers — had flowed into the western U.S. since at least the 1990s, but trafficking east of the Mississippi and into the Rust Belt reportedly began to accelerate around the mid-2000s, a transformative episode in the history of domestic drug problems detailed in Sam Quinones’s superb book Dreamland.
The timing was darkly auspicious. As prescription painkillers became harder to get and more expensive, thanks to alterations of the OxyContin tablet, to law-enforcement efforts, and to growing physician enlightenment, a pool of individuals already primed by their experience with prescription opioids moved on to low-cost, relatively pure, and accessible heroin. Indeed, between 2008 and 2010, about three-fourths of people who had used heroin in the past year reported non-medical use of painkillers — likely obtained outside the health-care system — before initiating heroin use.
The progression from pills to heroin was abetted by the nature of addiction itself. As users became increasingly tolerant to painkillers, they needed larger quantities of opioids or more efficient ways to use them in order to achieve the same effect. Moving from oral consumption to injection allowed this. Once a person is already injecting pills, moving to heroin, despite its stigma, doesn’t seem that big a step. The march to heroin is not inexorable, of course. Yet in economically and socially depleted environments where drug use is normalized, heroin is abundant, and treatment is scarce, widespread addiction seems almost inevitable.
The last five years or so have witnessed a massive influx of powder heroin to major cities such as New York, Detroit, and Chicago. From there, traffickers direct shipments to other urban areas, and these supplies are, in turn, distributed further to rural and suburban areas. It is the powdered form of heroin that is laced with synthetics, such as fentanyl. Most victims of synthetic opioids don’t even know they are taking them. Drug traffickers mix the fentanyl with heroin or press it into pill form that they sell as OxyContin.
Yet, there are reports of addicts now knowingly seeking fentanyl as their tolerance to heroin has grown. Whereas heroin requires poppies, which take time to cultivate, synthetics can be made in a lab, so the supply chain can be downsized. And because the synthetics are so strong, small volumes can be trafficked more efficiently and more profitably. What’s more, laboratories can easily stay one step ahead of the Drug Enforcement Administration by modifying fentanyl into analogs that are more potent, less detectable, or both. Synthetics are also far more deadly: In some regions of the country, roughly two-thirds of deaths from opioids can now be traced to heroin, including heroin that medical examiners either suspect or are certain was laced with fentanyl.
Terminology is important in discussions about drug use. A 2016 Surgeon General report on addiction, “Facing Addiction in America,” defines “misuse” of a substance as consumption that “causes harm to the user and/or to those around them.” Elsewhere, however, the term has been used to refer to consumption for a purpose not consistent with medical or legal guidelines. Thus, misuse would apply equally to the person who takes an extra pill now and then from his own prescribed supply of Percocet to reduce stress as well as to the person who buys it from a dealer and gets high several times a week. The term “abuse” refers to a consistent pattern of use causing harm, but “misuse,” with its protean definitions, has unhelpfully taken its place in many discussions of the current crisis. In the Surgeon General report, the clinical term “substance use disorder” refers to functionally significant impairment caused by substance use. Finally, “addiction,” while not considered a clinical term, denotes a severe form of substance-use disorder — in other words, compulsive use of a substance with difficulty stopping despite negative consequences.
Much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the opioid crisis holds that virtually anyone is at risk for opioid abuse or addiction — say, the average dental patient who receives some Vicodin for a root canal. This is inaccurate, but unsurprising. Exaggerating risk is a common strategy in public-health messaging: The idea is to garner attention and funding by democratizing affliction and universalizing vulnerability. But this kind of glossing is misleading at best, counterproductive at worst. To prevent and ameliorate problems, we need to know who is truly at risk to target resources where they are most needed.
In truth, the vast majority of people prescribed medication for pain do not misuse it, even those given high doses. A new study in the Annals of Surgery, for example, found that almost three-fourths of all opioid painkillers prescribed by surgeons for five common outpatient procedures go unused. In 2014, 81 million people received at least one prescription for an opioid pain reliever, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine; yet during the same year, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that only 1.9 million people, approximately 2%, met the criteria for prescription pain-reliever abuse or dependence (a technical term denoting addiction). Those who abuse their prescription opioids are patients who have been prescribed them for over six months and tend to suffer from concomitant psychiatric conditions, usually a mood or anxiety disorder, or have had prior problems with alcohol or drugs.
Notably, the majority of people who develop problems with painkillers are not individuals for whom they have been legitimately prescribed — nor are opioids the first drug they have misused. Such non-patients procure their pills from friends or family, often helping themselves to the amply stocked medicine chests of unsuspecting relatives suffering from cancer or chronic pain. They may scam doctors, forge prescriptions, or doctor shop. The heaviest users are apt to rely on dealers. Some of these individuals make the transition to heroin, but it is a small fraction. (Still, the death toll is striking given the lethality of synthetic opioids.) One study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that less than 5% of pill misusers had moved to heroin within five years of first beginning misuse. These painkiller-to-heroin migrators, according to analyses by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also tend to be frequent users of multiple substances, such as benzodiazepines, alcohol, and cocaine. The transition from these other substances to heroin may represent a natural progression for such individuals.
Thus, factors beyond physical pain are most responsible for making individuals vulnerable to problems with opioids. Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton paint a dreary portrait of the social determinants of addiction in their work on premature demise across the nation. Beginning in the late 1990s, deaths due to alcoholism-related liver disease, suicide, and opioid overdoses began to climb nationwide. These “deaths of despair,” as Case and Deaton call them, strike less-educated whites, both men and women, between the ages of 45 and 54. While the life expectancy of men and women with a college degree continues to grow, it is actually decreasing for their less-educated counterparts. The problems start with poor job opportunities for those without college degrees. Absent employment, people come unmoored. Families unravel, domestic violence escalates, marriages dissolve, parents are alienated from their children, and their children from them.
Opioids are a salve for these communal wounds. Work by Alex Hollingsworth and colleagues found that residents of locales most severely pummeled by the economic downturn were more susceptible to opioids. As county unemployment rates increased by one percentage point, the opioid death rate (per 100,000) rose by almost 4%, and the emergency-room visit rate for opioid overdoses (per 100,000) increased by 7%. It’s no coincidence that many of the states won by Donald Trump — West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio, for example — had the highest rates of fatal drug overdoses in 2015.
Of all prime-working-age male labor-force dropouts, nearly half — roughly 7 million men — take pain medication on a daily basis. “In our mind’s eye,” writes Nicholas Eberstadt in a recent issue of Commentary, “we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens — stoned.” Medicaid, it turns out, financed many of those stoned hours. Of the entire non-working prime-age white male population in 2013, notes Eberstadt, 57% were reportedly collecting disability benefits from one or more government disability programs. Medicaid enabled them to see a doctor and fill their prescriptions for a fraction of the street value: A single 10-milligram Percocet could go for $5 to $10, the co-pay for an entire bottle.
When it comes to beleaguered communities, one has to wonder how much can be done for people whose reserves of optimism and purposefulness have run so low. The challenge is formidable, to be sure, but breaking the cycle of self-destruction through treatment is a critical first step.
Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of people who become addicted to any drug, including heroin, quit on their own. But for those who cannot stop using by themselves, treatment is critical, and individuals with multiple overdoses and relapses typically need professional help. Experts recommend at least one year of counseling or anti-addiction medication, and often both. General consensus holds that a standard week of “detoxification” is basically useless, if not dangerous — not only is the person extremely likely to resume use, he is at special risk because he will have lost his tolerance and may easily overdose.
Nor is a standard 28-day stay in a residential facility particularly helpful as a sole intervention. In residential settings many patients acquire a false sense of security about their ability to resist drugs. They are, after all, insulated from the stresses and conditioned cues that routinely provoke drug cravings at home and in other familiar environments. This is why residential care must be followed by supervised transition to treatment in an outpatient setting: Users must continue to learn how to cope without drugs in the social and physical milieus they inhabit every day.
Fortunately, medical professionals are armed with a number of good anti-addiction medications to help patients addicted to opioids. The classic treatment is methadone, first introduced as a maintenance therapy in the 1960s. A newer medication approved by the FDA in 2002 for the treatment of opioid addiction is buprenorphine, or “bupe.” It comes, most popularly, as a strip that dissolves under the tongue. The suggested length of treatment with bupe is a minimum of one or two years. Like methadone, bupe is an opioid. Thus, it can prevent withdrawal, blunt cravings, and produce euphoria. Unlike methadone, however, bupe’s chemical structure makes it much less dangerous if taken in excess, thereby prompting Congress to enact a law, the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000, which allows physicians to prescribe it from their offices. Methadone, by contrast, can only be administered in clinics tightly regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (I work in such a clinic.)
In addition to methadone or buprenorphine, which have abuse potential of their own, there is extended-release naltrexone. Administered as a monthly injection, naltrexone is an opioid blocker. A person who is “blocked” normally experiences no effect upon taking an opioid drug. Because naltrexone has no abuse potential (hence no street value), it is favored by the criminal-justice system. Jails and prisons are increasingly offering inmates an injection of naltrexone; one dose is given at five weeks before release and another during the week of release with plans for ongoing treatment as an outpatient. Such protection is warranted given the increased risk for death, particularly from drug-related causes, in the early post-release period. For example, one study of inmates released from the Washington State Department of Corrections found a 10-fold greater risk of overdose death within the first two weeks after discharge compared with non-incarcerated state residents of the same age, sex, and race.