A Crisis Collision: Will COVID-19 Disrupt Efforts to Address the Opioid Epidemic?

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

Recovery Radio Podcast

Prior to the advent of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the opioid epidemic had been sweeping through the United State. An opinion piece recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine highlights growing concerns among medical professionals about the exacerbating effects the pandemic may have among people with opioid use disorder (OUD).

Job loss, food insecurity, and overall morbidity have disproportionately affected marginalized communities, including people with medical and psychiatric comorbidities. This has left the medical community with concerns about the potential rise in substance use disorders and opioid overdose. In the published opinion piece, William C. Becker, MD and David A. Fiellin, MD, explore the importance of uninterrupted access to methadone and buprenorphine for patients with OUD.

For quarantined patients, mobile teams were suggested as a way to deliver methadone, considering physical examination requirements have been relaxed and extended supply of the medication for stable patients has been allowed. The authors also encouraged the use of settlement funds from a buprenorphine manufacturer to address limited access to the drug due to financial constraints. The safer pharmacologic properties of buprenorphine allow it to be dosed less frequently, and in-home initiation of the drug is now supported by new dose titration protocols.

Currently, first year clinicians are required to limit the number of patients they treat concurrently; however, authors suggest this restriction be temporarily lifted in order to compensate for the limited number of physicians available due to the COVID-19 crisis, and support networks should be funded from local, state and federal governments to address patient needs.

In addition to highlighting the importance of uninterrupted access, the authors also implore the federal government to maintain funding for opioid-related projects, as the race for a COVID-19 vaccine threatens to halt strides in research on OUD treatment.

Finally, medical professionals are concerned that COVID-19 may delay remunerations for families affected by the opioid crisis. Financial insecurity due to the crisis makes it increasingly important to facilitate the acceleration of cases nearing resolution, because the postponement of court hearings in the era of social distancing may delay the compensation of victims of opioid manufacturers’ malfeasance.

“The response to COVID-19 and the speed with which regulatory barriers are being reconsidered and removed should be translated to opioid-related clinical, research, and legal policy”, the opinion authors noted. “In the absence of such efforts, we risk more catastrophic effects from these colliding epidemics.”

Alcohol Deaths Double in the US.

Ga’bor Molina’r on Unsplash

Recovery Radio Podcast

The following article is a reprint from our friends at the Pain News Network

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Alcohol related deaths in the U.S. have doubled in the past two decades, according to a new study that highlights an under-reported aspect of the overdose crisis: while deaths involving prescription opioids are declining, alcohol abuse appears to be increasing.

Researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found the number of death certificates mentioning alcohol more than doubled from 35,914 in 1999 to 72,558 in 2017.

By comparison, 17,029 deaths in 2017 involved a prescription opioid, according to CDC estimates.

“The current findings suggest that alcohol-related deaths involving injuries, overdoses and chronic diseases are increasing across a wide swath of the population. The report is a wakeup call to the growing threat alcohol poses to public health,” said NIAAA Director Dr. George Koob.

Nearly 1 million alcohol-related deaths were recorded between 1999-2017. About half the deaths resulted from chronic liver disease or overdoses on alcohol alone or with other drugs.

Researchers noted that alcohol-related deaths were increasing among people in almost every age, race and ethnic group. Their study is published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

“Taken together, the findings of this study and others suggests that alcohol-related harms are increasing at multiple levels – from ED visits and hospitalizations to deaths. We know that the contribution of alcohol often fails to make it onto death certificates. Better surveillance of alcohol involvement in mortality is essential in order to better understand and address the impact of alcohol on public health,” said Koob.

Other drugs besides alcohol are increasingly involved in overdoses. A recent analysis of over one million urine drug tests conducted by Millennium Health found that positive results for illicit fentanyl rose by 333% since 2013, while positive rates for methamphetamine increased by 486 percent.

That study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that positive rates for heroin and cocaine peaked in 2016 and appear to be declining.

The analysis is similar to a 2019 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which found that drug deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin have plateaued, while overdoses involving methamphetamine, cocaine and benzodiazepines have risen sharply.

Unreliable Data

Just how reliable is the federal data on drug use and overdoses? Not very, according to another study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Troy Quast, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Florida’s College of Public Health, compared overdose data from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission (FMEC) to drug deaths in a CDC database. Quast found the federal data significantly undercounted overdose deaths in Florida linked to cocaine, benzodiazepines, amphetamines and other drugs.

Florida medical examiners are required by law to wait for complete toxicology results before submitting an official cause of death to FMEC. It often takes weeks or months to identify the exact drug or drugs that cause an overdose. By contrast, the CDC data is based on death certificates filed by coroners and other local authorities, which often don’t include detailed toxicology reports. This causes significant differences between the two databases.

Between 2003 and 2017, roughly one-in-three overdose deaths in Florida involving illicit or prescription opioids were not reported by the federal government. The discrepancy wasn’t limited to opioids. Quast also found that nearly 3,000 deaths in Florida caused by cocaine were not included in the CDC database. Overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines and amphetamines were also significantly under-reported.

“The CDC data are widely reported in the news and referenced by politicians, which is problematic since those estimates significantly undercount the true scope of the epidemic for specific drugs,” said Quast. “The rate of under-reporting for all overdose deaths in Florida is near the national average, so the problem is not to the state.”

This isn’t the first time the reliability of CDC data has been questioned. In 2018, CDC researchers admitted that many overdoses involving illicit fentanyl and other synthetic black market opioids were erroneously counted as prescription drug deaths. As result, federal estimates prior to 2017 “significantly inflate estimates” of prescription opioid deaths.

Even the adjusted estimates are imprecise, because the number of deaths involving diverted prescriptions or counterfeit drugs is unknown and drugs are not identified on 20% of death certificates. When the drugs are listed, many overdoses are counted multiple times by the government because more than one substance is involved.

The federal government is working to improve the collection of overdose data. Over 30 states are now enrolled in the CDC’s Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance program, which seeks to improve overdose data by including toxicology reports and hospital billing records.

In 2017, the program reported that nearly 59 percent of overdose deaths involved illicit opioids like fentanyl and heroin, while 18.5% had both illicit and prescription opioids. Less than 18% tested positive for prescription opioids only.

A recent study of drug deaths in Massachusetts found that only 1.3% of overdose victims who died from an opioid painkiller had an active prescription for the drug – meaning the medication was probably diverted, stolen or bought on the street.  

I’m a POW in the “War on Drugs”

Photo by Selena Morar on Unsplash

Listen to the RRN Podcast

Douglas Hughes, Guest Columnist, Pain News Network

If you can hear the muffled sound of champagne being uncorked by lawmakers viewing my image, it’s no mistake. They have ignored my cries for help for a number of years, along with those of millions of other intractable pain sufferers.

I am 69 years old and have lost over forty pounds since August 2018. I am 6’2” and weigh 139 pounds, less than I did in eighth grade.

I cannot get anyone to care for me medically. I eat all the time, something else is wrong.  I had to change my primary care provider just to get a simple eye exam, the kind you do in a hallway. When tested, I could only see the top “E” with one eye. I had rapid-advancing cataracts.  

My picture is reality!  We have been so stigmatized and basic medical treatment denied to us, while the opioid pain therapies which kept us alive were abruptly taken away to profit from our deaths. 

Does my image impart distress? If not, you may hold the fortitude and inhumanity required for public office today. In West Virginia, elected officials still believe the opioid crisis is a due to a single drug — prescription opioids — diverted from a single source: pain clinics.


We have done nothing morally or legally wrong to deserve the horrendous lack of basic civility that you would show a wretched animal. I frequently relate my desire to be treated as a dog. Not in humor, but for the compassion that a dog would get if it was suffering like I am. 

The federal government has gone to extraordinary measures to brutalize the functionally disabled for personal enrichment and fiduciary windfall for programs like Medicare, Veterans Affairs, Workers Compensation, Medicaid, private retirements plans and others.

The largest windfall is to health insurance companies, which reap immense savings by curtailing the lingering lives of their most costly beneficiaries, the elderly and disabled. 

You May Be Next

Since the Vietnam War, there have been many advances in emergency medicine. More people are saved each year, yet left in constant pain. In the blink of an eye, you could become one. A car wreck, botched surgery or numerous health conditions can leave you with chronic or intractable pain.  

My image is a warning. I didn’t become the person you see until the government intervened in the pain treatment I was getting for 25 years. This was under the guise of a well-orchestrated effort by many state and federal agencies. 

The Drug Enforcement Administration has been the most prolific in this coordinated, decades-long effort.  In 2005, I witnessed them investigate and close a pain clinic where I was a patient.

My doctor was at the top of his field, a diagnostic virtuoso of complicated pain conditions.  He himself suffered from one pain condition of which I was aware.  No drug seeker could ever pass themselves off as a legitimate pain sufferer in his practice, yet he was harassed and forced to close because of assumptions of opioid overprescribing asserted by medically untrained law enforcement.      

It was my great fortune to have him diagnose the crushing injury in my torso and hips after twelve years of suffering.  He and two other pain specialists said I was “one of the most miserable cases” they had ever seen.

The loss of this and other outstanding professionals has repercussions even today. New doctors being trained are misled to believe the doctor-patient relationship is nonexistent. It was sacrificed to special interest greed and the conflagration of a drug crisis that will never end until that relationship is restored.

How easily has the public been misled to believe all physicians became irresponsible at the same time by treating pain conditions incorrectly with opioids? Now we have law enforcement dictating what pain treatment is appropriate. It is nonsensical at best and unimaginably inhumane at its heart.

My picture is the culmination of this government-standardized pain treatment and its consequences.  If heed is not taken immediately by the medical profession, lawmakers and society at large, you may be next to choose between suicide or emaciation.

Killing functionally disabled intractable pain sufferers like me, or non-responsive elderly in hospitals, will not stop opioid addiction, drug diversion or overdose deaths. It will however leave you a skeleton, praying for help like a prisoner of war.

Only the hearts of tyrants and fools see anything redeeming in that.

Douglas Hughes is a disabled coal miner and retired environmental permit writer in West Virginia. He recently ended his candidacy for governor due to health issues.

Best to Avoid Alcohol Altogether

Recovery Radio Podcast

In updated cancer prevention guidelines released today, the American Cancer Society (ACS) now recommends that “it is best not to drink alcohol.”

Previously, ACS suggested that for those who consume alcoholic beverages, intake should be no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 per day for men. That recommendation is still in place, but is now accompanied by this new, stronger directive.

The guidelines, revised for the first time since 2012, also place more emphasis on reducing the consumption of processed and red meat and highly processed foods, and on increasing physical activity.

Asked for independent comment, Steven K. Clinton, MD, PhD, associate director of the Center for Advanced Functional Foods Research and Entrepreneurship at the Ohio State University, Columbus, explained that he didn’t view the change in alcohol as that much of an evolution. “It’s been 8 years since they revised their overall guidelines and during that time frame, there has been an enormous growth in the evidence that has been used by many organizations,” he said.

But importantly, there is also a call for action from public, private, and community organizations to work to together to increase access to affordable, nutritious foods and physical activity.

“Making healthy choices can be challenging for many, and there are strategies included in the guidelines that communities can undertake to help reduce barriers to eating well and physical activity,” said Laura Makaroff, DO, American Cancer Society senior vice president.

The guidelines were published today in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

The link between cancer and lifestyle factors has long been established, and for the past 4 decades both government and leading nonprofit health organizations, including the ACS and the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR), have released cancer prevention guidelines and recommendations that focus on managing weight, diet, physical activity, and alcohol consumption.

In 2012 the ACS issued guidelines on diet and physical activity, and their current guideline is largely based on the WCRF/AICR systematic reviews and Continuous Update Project reports, which were last updated in 2018. The ACS guidelines also incorporated systematic reviews conducted by the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC) and the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services (USDA/HHS), and other analyses that were published since the WCRF/AICR recommendations were released.

Emphasis on Three Areas

The differences between the old guidelines and the update do not differ dramatically, but Makaroff highlighted a few areas that have increased emphasis.

An area that Makaroff highlighted is alcohol, where the recommendation is to avoid or limit consumption. “The current update says not to drink alcohol, which is in line with the scientific evidence, but for those people who choose to drink alcohol, to limit it to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.”

Thus, the change here is that the previous guideline only recommended limiting alcohol consumption, whereas the update suggests that, optimally, it should be avoided completely.

Time spent being physically active is critical. The recommendation has changed to encourage adults to engage in 150 to 300 minutes (2.5 to 5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity, or 75 to 150 minutes (1.25 to 2.5 hours) of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination, per week. Achieving or exceeding the upper limit of 300 minutes is optimal.

“That is more than what we have recommended in the past, along with the continued message that children and adolescents engage in at least 1 hour of moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity each day,” she told Medscape Medical News.

The ACS has also increased emphasis on reducing the consumption of processed and red meat. “This is part of a healthy eating pattern and making sure that people are eating food that is high in nutrients that help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight,” said Makaroff.

A healthy diet should include a variety of dark green, red, and orange vegetables; fiber-rich legumes; and fruits with a variety of colors and whole grains, according to the guidelines. Sugar-sweetened beverages, highly processed foods and refined grain products should be limited or avoided.

The revised dietary recommendations reflect a shift from a “reductionist or nutrient-centric” approach to one that is more “holistic” and that focuses on dietary patterns. In contrast to a focus on individual nutrients and bioactive compounds, the new approach is more consistent with what and how people actually eat, ACS points out.

The ACS has also called for community involvement to help implement these goals: “Public, private, and community organizations should work collaboratively at national, state, and local levels to develop, advocate for, and implement policy and environmental changes that increase access to affordable, nutritious foods; provide safe, enjoyable, and accessible opportunities for physical activity; and limit alcohol for all individuals.”

No Smoking Guns

Clinton noted that the guidelines are consistent with the whole body of current scientific literature. “It’s very easy to go to the document and look for the ‘smoking gun’ ­— but the smoking gun is really not one thing,” he said. “It’s a pattern, and what dieticians and nutritionists are telling people is that you need to orchestrate a healthy lifestyle and diet, with a diet that has a foundation of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and modest intake of refined grains and meat. You are orchestrating an entire pattern to get the maximum benefit.”

What If the Opioid Crisis Is Worse Than We Think?

Photo by Jeremy Lwanga on Unsplash

Recovery Radio Podcast

Editor’s Note: The following article is courtesy of the Pain News Network

A recent study in the journal Addiction reports that the opioid crisis in the U.S. may be worse than we’ve been led to believe. The number of overdose deaths linked to legal and illicit opioids over the past two decades could be about 28 percent higher than reported.

Economists Andrew Boslett, Alina Denham and Elaine Hill looked at drug overdose deaths between 1999 and 2016 in the National Center for Health Statistics. Of 632,331 deaths, over one in five had no information on the drugs involved. The researchers estimated that as many as 72% percent of those deaths likely involved opioids. This yields an additional 99,160 deaths involving prescription opioids, heroin, fentanyl and other street drugs that were not counted.

This estimate may or may not be right, but it is definitely not new. Claims like this have been around for years.

In 2017, Business Insider reported on an investigation by CDC field officer Dr. Victoria Hall, who looked at the Minnesota Department of Health’s Unexplained Death (UNEX) system. She found that 1,676 deaths in the state had “some complications due to opioid use,” but were not reported as opioid-related deaths.

A 2018 study at the University of Pittsburgh found that as many as 70,000 overdose deaths were missed because of incomplete reporting.

‘Cooking the Data’

It has long been suspected that the CDC’s opioid overdose death toll is faulty – either too high or too low, depending on your point of view. Public health data in the U.S. is shoddy, the result of a fractured and fragmented system that has little central guidance or administrative oversight. The overdose numbers aren’t as reliable as they should be, which raises suspicion they are being manipulated.

The Atlanticmakes a similar point about the coronavirus outbreak.

“Everyone is cooking the data, one way or another. And yet, even though these inconsistencies are public and plain, people continue to rely on charts showing different numbers, with no indication that they are not all produced with the same rigor or vigor,” wrote Alexis Madrigal. “This is bad. It encourages dangerous behavior such as cutting back testing to bring a country’s numbers down or slow-walking testing to keep a country’s numbers low.”

The implications of under-counting deaths in the overdose crisis require careful consideration. Political campaigns, public policy, state laws and regulations, and clinical practice are built on these numbers. For instance, the Trump administration was recently touting a 4% decline in overdose deaths, but that reduction may not exist.

Similarly, cannabis advocacy groups argue that state legalization has reduced overdose deaths. But again, that reduction may evaporate with better data. State laws and regulations are built on the assumption that trend lines were going in a particular direction. But maybe they aren’t.

Most important, policy groups have argued strenuously that reducing prescription opioid utilization would alleviate the overdose crisis. But if there are vastly more deaths than recognized, where does that leave these groups?

Of course, determining cause of death is a process fraught with difficulties. The New York Timesreports that morgues are overburdened and understaffed, many suspected overdose deaths are not fully evaluated, and reporting on the cause of death is not standardized.

Making a probabilistic assessment is even more fraught. For instance, a recent attempt to use stool samples to measure how many rodents, birds and other wildlife are eaten by domestic cats was undone by the discovery that cat food manufacturers regularly change their ingredients.

In other words, there are many known problems and occasional surprises in public health data, so any estimate has to be treated with caution. But if opioid overdoses are vastly undercounted, then we should reassess the policies and politics of the crisis.

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist: Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The Other Side of Cannabis

Photo by Daniel Páscoa on Unsplash

Recovery Radio Podcast

The following article is courtesy of the Pain News Network

I knew from my friend Nick’s Facebook feed that he was a cannabis enthusiast. His posts preached how it cures pretty much everything and will lead us to world peace.

Nick never tired of encouraging me to try it for my pain from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, even as I explained repeatedly that since my mother was psychotic, I avoid all drugs which may cause psychosis. Theoretically, I am at higher risk for that adverse reaction.

Psychosis is a disconnection from reality. A person may have delusions, hallucinations, talk incoherently and experience agitation. Since the 1970s, researchers have been investigating whether cannabis can trigger a psychotic break or full-blown schizophrenia. Daily users of highly potent cannabis are five times more likely to develop psychosis. The risk comes not only from genetic factors, but also from early-life neglect or abuse and even being born in the winter.

Having a rare and complicated medical condition, I get a lot of advice. I took Nick’s insistence I go on cannabis as kindness, as I take all unsolicited health tips. Our social media friendship grew. When my husband and I took a trip to his part of the world, he invited us to stay with him.

Nick picked us up at the train station in the English countryside looking like a dashing movie star. Slim and trim in a crisp Oxford shirt and Ray Bans, spryly maneuvering our luggage, he was still attractive in his 70s. Speaking English like Prince Charles, he confessed, “I am actually a cannabis farmer. I expect no trouble from the local police, but would you prefer to get a hotel room in town?”

My husband and I once risked our lives in the back alleys of Hong Kong to get me a fake Hermes bag. We did not need to consult with each other. We opt for adventure. I would not miss my chance to live a Jane Austen fantasy.

We ate off Nick’s three centuries-old family silver, the forks worn down from hundreds of years of scooting food across the plate. We sat beneath the Regency era portraits of his ancestors. Nick had a room devoted to his cannabis crop, growing fast underneath sun simulating lamps. The odor from the plants permeated his entire country home.

In real life, just as on Facebook, Nick’s favorite subject was the virtues of cannabis. He had been using it since he was a young man. Decades ago, he had spent a couple of years in prison for distribution. Recently his wife had left him over his devotion to marijuana. It was clear from Nick’s stories and life choices that cannabis had created tremendous tension with his family.

We talked of him coming to stay with us in Los Angeles, how we could all go to San Francisco to visit the Haight, as Nick was a genuine 1960s hippie. But leaving home to travel was a problem for him. When he does, he has to ask a friend to tend to his plants, which also means asking the friend to break the law.

Our days with Nick at his charming cottage were governed by his need to partake. Our visits to local sites were cut short, so he could be done driving and functioning for the day, and get home to get high. He did not seem to enjoy the excursions and seemed overwhelmed by being out and about, his anxiety growing, urging us to wrap up and get back home.

Cannabis Side Effects

Like Nick, many people are certain that marijuana helps them get by. On it, life is tolerable and pleasant. Anxiety is calmed. They are out of pain and able to sleep. But are they really benefiting?

At first, marijuana has a calming effect, but over time it negatively changes the way the brain works, causing anxiety, depression and impaired social functioning. With regular use, memory, learning, attention, decision-making, coordination, emotions, and reaction time are impaired. Heavy cannabis use lowers IQ

This damage can persist, even after use stops. Teenage users are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and suicidality in young adulthood. According to the CDC, about 1 in 10 marijuana users will become addicted. For people who begin using younger than age 18, 1 in 6 become addicted.

As is the case with other mood-altering substances, cannabis withdrawal symptoms — which include irritability, nervousness, anxiety, depression, insomnia, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, shakiness, sweating, fever, chills and headache — provokes the desire to use.

If someone is using cannabis to escape emotional distress, they never get the chance to deal with underlying problems. Psychiatrist Dr. David Puder recommends to his patients on cannabis that they stop in order to benefit from therapy.

“When they are off of marijuana, they have the ability to be present and really process what they will need to process in therapy in order to get over anxiety and depression,” Puder says, noting that users will often experience a flood of emotions and memories once they stop.

Medical marijuana has been approved for chronic pain and over 50 other health conditions by various states. Whether it actually helps with pain is uncertain. The U.S. Surgeon General warns the potency of marijuana has changed over time and what is available today is much stronger than previous versions. Higher doses of THC (the psychoactive chemical in cannabis) are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia and psychosis. Consumers are not adequately warned about these potential harms.

House Guests

Our friend Nick was sure his marijuana use was his choice and that he was not addicted. He insisted my husband and I get high with him.

What is a polite house guest to do? Go along, of course, although we prefer whiskey and a steak. Nick promised we would love it, and that we were free to go upstairs and have sex and open up about anything. We giggled awkwardly. I ingested the smallest possible dose.

Nick then got higher than we had seen him during our entire visit, wolfing down his dinner in minutes. Then, after promising we’d have a tremendous evening of emotional openness and transcendent sharing, he burst into tears recounting how he was the victim of violence in his youth.

I felt for him, it was a horrifying event. Was this unresolved trauma the cause of a lifetime of drug use, denial and self-isolation? We had to wonder. It was truly awkward and uncomfortable, but Nick didn’t seem to remember his outburst. When we returned home, he continued to hound me to take up cannabis.

By Madora Pennington, PNN Columnist