The opioid epidemic: Six essential reads
Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories related to opioids.
Hillary Clinton has proposed a US$10 billion plan to combat addiction. That includes $7.5 billion to fund state plans for prevention and education, expanded access for first responders to a drug to reverse overdoses, more training for prescribers, better drug monitoring and criminal justice reform.
Donald Trump has described the opioid epidemic as “a tremendous problem.” He says that building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border will keep heroin out of the country. In regards to treating addiction he says “we’re going to spend the money, we’re going to get that habit broken.” But he has not offered specific details on funding.
Scholars writing for The Conversation have been examining the many facets of the epidemic for months. Here are six articles that explain the background of the epidemic and where were might go from here.
How did we get here?
Ted Cicero and Matthew Ellis, who study opioid abuse at Washington University in St. Louis, argue that the roots of the epidemic go back to two events: the introduction in 1996 of OxyContin, an extended-release high-dose opioid, and a 2001 report on pain treatment from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.
As Cicero and Ellis write:
“The change in pain treatment ushered in by the Joint Commission report lead to an increase in the number of opioid prescriptions in the U.S., and the increase in prescriptions for this particular high dose opioid helped to introduce an unprecedented amount of prescription drugs into the marketplace, generating a whole new population of opioid users.”
Jeannie D. DiClementi, a professor of psychology, points out that the increase in opioid prescribing led to an increase in heroin use:
“[N]early 80 percent of heroin users report having become addicted to prescription pain medications first, while just 3.6 percent had a history of heroin use before beginning prescription pain medications.”
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than heroin, was first introduced in the 1960s as a painkiller during major surgery. Illictly made fentanyl is now being found on the street, often in counterfeit drugs. So are novel synthetic opioids that are chemically unrelated to anything used in medicine but act on the same receptors in the body and brain. These drugs are generally manufactured in clandestine labs in China and Mexico. However, adding these illicitly made versions of fentanyl and other new opioids to Schedule I, the category of the Controlled Substances Act for illegal drugs like heroin, can be a lengthy process. And as Samuel Bannister, Roy Gerona and Axel Adams, who study these new synthetic substances, explain:
“The trouble is that as individual illicit synthetic opioids are added to Schedule I, clandestine chemists in China and Mexico ‘tweak’ molecular structures to circumvent the law by creating new drugs with similar effects.”
The federal government is already taking action to fight the epidemic, passing legislation aimed at expanding access to addiction treatment, and even improving treatment options for people in the criminal justice system. William Greene and Lisa J. Merlo from the University of Florida write that:
“This stepped-up policy response is giving doctors the means to better treat people with opioid addiction. When combined with improvements in public understanding that addiction is a disease requiring treatment, we as a society are creating an environment that supports treatment. We believe this will save many thousands of lives.”
We still need opioids
Pain, explains Robert Caudle at the University of Florida, is complex and multifaceted, something that we can experience in many dimensions. Opioids can suppress incoming pain signals, prevent those signals from being amplified, and improve the emotional states of the patient, all critical things for people with chronic pain. In many ways, opoids are the most effective treatment we have currently, but Caudle notes out that we aren’t investing much in finding better ones.
“In 2015 the National Institutes of Health spent US$854 million on pain research, compared to more than $6 billion for cancer. It is no wonder that pain patients muddle through with what amounts to centuries-old therapies.”
While the opioid epidemic wears on in the U.S., parts of South America, Africa and Asia face a very different opioid crisis: too few of them. People in those parts of the world often cannot access pain medication stronger than acetaminophen. Luke Messac argues that policies from the International Narcotics Control Board aimed at preventing opioids from being diverted for illict use have wound up keeping these medicines out of the hands of people who truly need them. “Pain is universal,” writes Messac, “but its relief is still a function of geography.”