January 6, 2018 THE RIGHT APPROACH TO THE OPIOD CRISIS
As a practicing doctor with certification in psychiatry and having worked in Palm Beach County for the past 25 years, my views on the current opioid epidemic are the result of my daily contact with addicts, their families, the medical community, law enforcement and the judicial system. My work has taken me from the E.R. to the inpatient treatment centers and rehabs to the courts to our psychiatric hospitals and to our coroners offices. I have watched this epidemic from its earliest stages to its current existential threat status. As a result I have come to the following conclusions about this tragic situation our community and communities across the country find themselves faced with. WE MUST CHANGE THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT THIS AND TREAT THIS PLAGUE.
1.) Move away from the concept of a war on drugs. Move towards providing an aid package for these vulnerable and impaired individuals.
2.) Move away from concepts of criminalization, imprisonment, and that they are deserving of severe punishment. Move towards treatment and therapeutic interventions. View individuals with OUD as impaired and of need of help.
3.) The concept of opiate-dependent individuals as merely addicts that are weak, self-indulgent, hedonistic, and who are scorned by all is not helpful in resolving this national issue. There certainly is a volitional component to this illness. While personal responsibility and accountability is the only path to a healthy life, opiate-dependent individuals need a support system and tools to help get them on that path. Individuals suffering from OUD hate themselves, the behaviors in which they engage, and the resulting consequences. People with OUD are reckless with their lives because they feel their lives have little or no value. The mind-set of the opiate-dependent individual is one in which it doesn’t matter if they live or die. These vulnerable individuals are also prone to abuse and exploitation.
4.) Society must track these individuals and intervene when necessary.
5.) Society as a whole must be educated about opiates and all aspects of drug dependency, starting in grade school. Opiates come in pill form, patches, lollipops, and can be snorted and inhaled. Drug dependency can begin after one dose. Five days of continued use of opiates can result in drug dependency. Individuals who are genetically predisposed to dependency are more affected.
Like many drugs, over time the same amount of opiates has less and less affect which results in individuals increasing the drug dose and decreasing time between doses. This is the concept of drug tolerance. People spend more time getting the drug and doing the drug, and it becomes a vicious cycle. OUD individuals start to live a life of lies to cover their drug use. They spend a majority of their time planning to get money and make time to use drugs. They become psychologically consumed by thoughts of procuring opiates, using opiates, and disregarding everything else, including family, friends, job, health, and finances. All that matters to them now is getting high. When in withdrawal, these individuals can become very desperate and dangerous. They will go to great lengths to get high.
What can we do in terms of how society should deal with the problem? When treating an OUD patient, both incentives and consequences need to be geared towards keeping them off the drug of abuse. These five areas are conceptual changes needed towards resolving the national opiate use crisis and treating patients with Opiate Use Disorder:
1.) There needs to be a massive education campaign similar to the education campaign against tobacco including the danger of opiates and treatment options for OUD individuals. Explain the dangers of opiates, what opiates are, how they affect our brains, and, importantly, how easily it is to become dependent. The potential of overdose and death needs to be underscored. For example, the opiate called fentanyl, in amounts barely visible to the human eye, can cause individuals to stop breathing. Fentanyl is measured in micrograms. There are 100 milligrams in a gram. There are 1000 micrograms in a milligram. There are 100,000 micrograms in a gram. Two hundred micrograms or maybe less is lethal, which hardly covers the tip of a needle.
2.) The streets must be flooded with Narcan inhalers. One to three sprays in a nostril can revive an opiate overdose.
3.) The streets must be flooded with test kits to determine what is in the drugs and how much is in them. People make better decisions when they know what is in the drug they are taking. For example, if someone makes a street purchase of a drug with fentanyl or methadone in it, they need to be extra careful because those drugs can easily kill you. Methadone is dangerous not only because it is so potent but because it lasts so long. There is an even more dangerous drug on the street called carfentanyl which is 100 times more potent than fentanyl! Note: methadone has been useful in the treatment of OUD, however, it is so dangerous that the dose must be given out on a daily basis. While methadone blocks cravings, it provides a high so can still be abused and lead to an overdose. Buprenorphine is another drug used in treating OUD, and it has been found to be safe enough to prescribe on a monthly basis. The negatives and stigma associated with methadone should not be associated with buprenorphine.
4.) Laws need to be changed. Instead of charging people with accessory to murder when a friend overdoses and dies, give them immunity. Give complete immunity to people in the presence of someone who overdoses if they call 911 during the overdose. Encourage people to call 911 and save lives, not run and hide fearing prosecution.
5.) The court system for individuals with OUD must change. Once in the system, these individuals must be tracked with drug testing and given treatment when needed. Criminal records for possession or use can be wiped away if the individual stays sober. Incarceration should be a last resort. Charging people with felonies for drug possession scars people for life. Once labeled a felon, re-entering society becomes very difficult. OUD individuals are not sociopaths or criminals, they are ill with a disease. Treat the illness and there are no criminal problems.
This perspective demands basic changes in our societal and individual thinking about opioid dependency. Equally as important is the way the established medical community regards and treats this diagnosis and it is just that….a medical condition.
I have many thoughts for my peers and given the opportunity, I would welcome the chance to share them.
No matter what our circumstances in life, we are all touched by this epidemic in some way. We all have skin in this game. Time is precious, costly and limited. Soon may become later and it is already too late to wait.
More comprehensive explanations about how to deal with addictions in my book Tales From The Couch on amazon.com
Mark Agresti, M.D.