Addressing the Socioeconomic Complexities of Addiction—Lessons from the Kensington Neighborhood in Philadelphia

From the Monthly Blog of Dr. Lora Volkow, Dir., National Institute on Drug Abuse
Originally Posted October 29, 2019 here.

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This September, Dr. Volkow was invited by Thomas Farley, the Health Commissioner of Philadelphia, to see firsthand how that city is responding to the opioid crisis. With other members of NIDA leadership, she toured Prevention Point, a private non-profit organization providing harm reduction services to Philadelphia and the surrounding area. The group also visited the health unit of the city’s Prisons Department, where they recently started a program that provides medications to prisoners with opioid addiction, and they met with outreach workers from Temple University who operate a mobile treatment unit that provides medications and behavioral health services for opioid addiction, as well as basic wound care.

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Philadelphia’s rate of overdose deaths skyrocketed this past decade, tripling the city’s number of homicide deaths and greatly exceeding the peak number of deaths from AIDS in 1994. With one fifth the population of Manhattan, Philadelphia still has almost as many overdose deaths. It was humbling not only to see the challenges facing a city with a longstanding opioid problem but also to see the engagement and dedication of people on the ground attempting to help, as well as the struggles of those battling their own drug addiction amidst extremely hard socioeconomic challenges.

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Prevention Point’s Wound Care Clinic offers free, specialized wound care for all people

Whenever Dr. Volkow asks people on the front lines of America’s drug crisis what more NIDA can do to support and help their work, they remind her how essential it is to address the basic needs of individuals with addiction, such as stable and safe housing, food, basic medical care, and an opportunity for employment.  In the addiction field, NIDA has recognized the importance of addressing these basic needs as part of recovery support. Yet, it is crucial to realize that these needs have to be met even before a person is in stable recovery in order to facilitate them getting to recovery at all.  People cannot recover from addiction if they are homeless, isolated, and struggling to find food and safety.

Located in Kensington, one of Philadelphia’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, Prevention Point, which began three decades ago in response to the AIDS crisis, offers medications for opioid use disorder (buprenorphine and naltrexone), distributes Narcan (Naloxone) kits for reversal of opioid overdoses, and provides sterile syringes to reduce the risk of infections. It also offers testing for HIV and HCV and treatment referral when needed, wound care (people who inject drugs frequently develop infections), and linkage to behavioral health treatment.

Additionally, the center provides temporary housing and meals, as well as case management and a wide array of other non-medical services to people experiencing homelessness and struggling with addiction, such as legal services and mail services for clients who would otherwise be unable to file and receive needed paperwork. Under the impressive leadership of Executive Director Jose Benitez and Associate Executive Director Silvana Mazzella, Prevention Point provides these services with a very limited budget (facilitated by both public and private funding), in an old church.

Man Giving Money To Beggar On Street

By visibly providing support and care for individuals with addiction, Prevention Point is embraced by some in the community but resisted by others. Some view treatment as competition for the drug market; others fear how it may affect the neighborhood’s potential for renovation and gentrification. With addiction services historically segregated from the rest of healthcare, the “not in my backyard” (“NIMB”) problem has long been a major factor in impeding access to treatment.

NIDA’s visit to Philadelphia drove home why America needs to address the stigma that still surrounds opioid addiction and its treatment. It also drove home why addressing the crisis will require a comprehensive approach—including treatment with medications along with harm-reduction (like needle exchange), as well as case management and an array of non-medical services that can attend to people’s basic needs, including helping them build meaningful social relationships.

It is crucial that drug treatment specialists do more research to find ways of effectively delivering such services and support to all communities, both urban and rural, that need them. It will require more collaborative engagement between researchers and community-level providers, volunteers, and people suffering from substance use disorders—the HEALing Communities Study, which is getting underway in four hard-hit states, is a start.

In conclusion, Dr. Volkow said, “I also strongly encourage scientists who work in other aspects of addiction research to spend time at local addiction service providers to get a firsthand understanding of the challenges faced by those on the front lines, to visit neighborhoods that have been devastated by addiction, and to speak to those afflicted. It can be a valuable reminder of how every aspect of a person’s life—from employment, to housing, to interpersonal relationships—can be either a vulnerability or an asset on the road to addiction recovery. “

U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory: Marijuana Use and the Developing Brain

Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

I am reposting this information from a link to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS.gov) provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website.

I, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, am emphasizing the importance of protecting our Nation from the health risks of marijuana use in adolescence and during pregnancy. Recent increases in access to marijuana and in its potency, along with misperceptions of safety of marijuana endanger our most precious resource, our nation’s youth.

Background

Marijuana, or cannabis, is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. It acts by binding to cannabinoid receptors in the brain to produce a variety of effects, including euphoria, intoxication, and memory and motor impairments. These same cannabinoid receptors are also critical for brain development. They are part of the endocannabinoid system, which impacts the formation of brain circuits important for decision making, mood and responding to stress.

Marijuana and its related products are widely available in multiple forms. These products can be eaten, drunk, smoked, and vaped. Marijuana contains varying levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component responsible for euphoria and intoxication, and cannabidiol (CBD). While CBD is not intoxicating and does not lead to addiction, its long-term effects are largely unknown, and most CBD products are untested and of uncertain purity.

Marijuana has changed over time. The marijuana available today is much stronger than previous versions. The THC concentration in commonly cultivated marijuana plants has increased three-fold between 1995 and 2014 (4% and 12% respectively). Marijuana available in dispensaries in some states has average concentrations of THC between 17.7% and 23.2%. Concentrated products, commonly known as dabs or waxes, are far more widely available to recreational users today and may contain between 23.7% and 75.9% THC.

The risks of physical dependence, addiction, and other negative consequences increase with exposure to high concentrations of THC and the younger the age of initiation. Higher doses of THC are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis. Edible marijuana takes time to absorb and to produce its effects, increasing the risk of unintentional overdose, as well as accidental ingestion by children and adolescents. In addition, chronic users of marijuana with a high THC content are at risk for developing a condition known as cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, which is marked by severe cycles of nausea and vomiting.

This advisory is intended to raise awareness of the known and potential harms to developing brains, posed by the increasing availability of highly potent marijuana in multiple, concentrated forms. These harms are costly to individuals and to our society, impacting mental health and educational achievement and raising the risks of addiction and misuse of other substances.  Additionally, marijuana use remains illegal for youth under state law in all states; normalization of its use raises the potential for criminal consequences in this population. In addition to the health risks posed by marijuana use, sale or possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law notwithstanding some state laws to the contrary.

Marijuana Use during Pregnancy

Pregnant women use marijuana more than any other illicit drug. In a national survey, marijuana use in the past month among pregnant women doubled (3.4% to 7%) between 2002 and 2017. In a study conducted in a large health system, marijuana use rose by 69% (4.2% to 7.1%) between 2009 and 2016 among pregnant women. Alarmingly, many retail dispensaries recommend marijuana to pregnant women for morning sickness.

Marijuana use during pregnancy can affect the developing fetus.

  • THC can enter the fetal brain from the mother’s bloodstream.
  • It may disrupt the endocannabinoid system, which is important for a healthy pregnancy and fetal brain development.
  • Studies have shown that marijuana use in pregnancy is associated with adverse outcomes, including lower birth weight.
  • The Colorado Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System reported that maternal marijuana use was associated with a 50% increased risk of low birth weight regardless of maternal age, race, ethnicity, education, and tobacco use.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists holds that “[w]omen who are pregnant or contemplating pregnancy should be encouraged to discontinue marijuana use. Women reporting marijuana use should be counseled about concerns regarding potential adverse health consequences of continued use during pregnancy”. In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that “…it is important to advise all adolescents and young women that if they become pregnant, marijuana should not be used during pregnancy.”

Maternal marijuana use may still be dangerous to the baby after birth. THC has been found in breast milk for up to six days after the last recorded use. It may affect the newborn’s brain development and result in hyperactivity, poor cognitive function, and other long-term consequences. Additionally, marijuana smoke contains many of the same harmful components as tobacco smoke. No one should smoke marijuana or tobacco around a baby.

Marijuana Use during Adolescence

Marijuana is also commonly used by adolescents, second only to alcohol. In 2017, approximately 9.2 million youth aged 12 to 25 reported marijuana use in the past month and 29% more young adults aged 18-25 started using marijuana. In addition, high school students’ perception of the harm from regular marijuana use has been steadily declining over the last decade. During this same period, a number of states have legalized adult use of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes, while it remains illegal under federal law. The legalization movement may be impacting youth perception of harm from marijuana. 

The human brain continues to develop from before birth into the mid-20s and is vulnerable to the effects of addictive substances. Frequent marijuana use during adolescence is associated with:

  • Changes in the areas of the brain involved in attention, memory, decision-making, and motivation. Deficits in attention and memory have been detected in marijuana-using teens even after a month of abstinence.
  • Impaired learning in adolescents. Chronic use is linked to declines in IQ, school performance that jeopardizes professional and social achievements, and life satisfaction.
  • Increased rates of school absence and drop-out, as well as suicide attempts.

Risk for and early onset of psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. The risk for psychotic disorders increases with frequency of use, potency of the marijuana product, and as the age at first use decreases. 

  • Other substance use. In 2017, teens 12-17 reporting frequent use of marijuana showed a 130% greater likelihood of misusing opioids.

Marijuana’s increasingly widespread availability in multiple and highly potent forms, coupled with a false and dangerous perception of safety among youth, merits a nationwide call to action. 

You Can Take Action

No amount of marijuana use during pregnancy or adolescence is known to be safe. Until and unless more is known about the long-term impact, the safest choice for pregnant women and adolescents is not to use marijuana.  Pregnant women and youth–and those who love them–need the facts and resources to support healthy decisions. It is critical to educate women and youth, as well as family members, school officials, state and local leaders, and health professionals, about the risks of marijuana, particularly as more states contemplate legalization.

Science-based messaging campaigns and targeted prevention programming are urgently needed to ensure that risks are clearly communicated and amplified by local, state, and national organizations. Clinicians can help by asking about marijuana use, informing mothers-to-be, new mothers, young people, and those vulnerable to psychotic disorders, of the risks. Clinicians can also prescribe safe, effective, and FDA-approved treatments for nausea, depression, and pain during pregnancy. Further research is needed to understand all the impacts of THC on the developing brain, but we know enough now to warrant concern and action. Everyone has a role in protecting our young people from the risks of marijuana.

Emergency Departments Can Help Prevent Opioid Overdoses

From the Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow
Executive Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

Additional Writings by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

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Originally Posted at the NIDA Website on August 26, 2019

One of the biggest risk factors for overdose death from opioids is having had a previous overdose. Common sense and a growing body of research suggest that patients with Opioid Use Disorder who receive acute care in an emergency department will be at reduced risk for later overdose if they are initiated on medications to treat their Opioid Use Disorder. Unfortunately, too few Emergency Departments are making this a standard practice, and lives are being lost as a result.

According to a new report published by the Delaware Drug Overdose Fatality Review Commission, half of the people in the state of Delaware who died of an overdose in the second half of 2018 had suffered a previous nonfatal overdose, and more than half (52%) of the overdose deaths occurred within three months of a visit to the emergency room. Even when visits were not for overdose, signs of Opioid Use Disorder were apparent during the visit in most cases. The report thus recommended that patients who visit emergency rooms with obvious signs of Opioid Use Disorder should be immediately referred to rehabilitation treatment. Optimally, the initiation of medication for Opioid Use Disorder should be started before patients are discharged. This will improve their clinical outcomes.

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Even without a waiver, Emergency Department providers are permitted to administer Subcutex (buprenorphine) or methadone a limited number of times to patients under their care. In fact, several studies have now shown the benefit of initiating Subcutex in the Emergency Department rather than just referring the patient to drug treatment—it is called an “emergency” department for a reason! A recent NIDA-funded study by Yale researchers published in JAMA in 2015 showed that Subcutex treatment initiated by Emergency Department physicians was associated with decreased opioid use and improved treatment engagement in the 30-day period following discharge.

There is significant evidence that medications for Opioid Use Disorder prevent overdoses. For example, a prospective cohort study of 17,568 opioid overdose survivors in Massachusetts published last year in Annals of Internal Medicine found significant reductions in the risk of subsequent overdoses over the next 12 months in those who received treatment with methadone or Subcutex. Yet, only 30 percent of those who had overdosed received medication for Opioid Use Disorder. This statistic is extremely alarming, because the sample of patients was clearly at high risk for overdosing.

Bottles of Opiate Prescriptions

More alarmingly, 34 percent of those who had been treated for overdose received additional opioid pain prescriptions during the subsequent 12 months, despite their overdose history, and 26 percent received benzodiazepines, which as respiratory depressants further increase risk of overdose in those who misuse opioid drugs or who are being treated with high doses of opioid medications for pain management. [From my personal experience, benzodiazepines were hightly addictive and I tended to abuse them along with oxycodone. Family members noted my complete lack of sadness or empathy during my father’s funeral in December 2014. I stared at the floor and did not shed a tear. This is solely based on the fact that I was high on oxycodone and benzodiazepines at that time.]

It is crucial that acute care physicians, and the health care systems in which they practice, become aware of the importance of ensuring that patients be screened for Opioid Use Disorder and, if same is detected, that they receive treatment, ideally by initiating them on Subcutex before they are released.  Additionally, patients who visit an Emergency Department because of an overdose, or who otherwise show signs of Opioid Use Disorder, should be sent home with Narcan (naloxone)  and given instructions on how to use it to reverse an opioid-induced overdose. This was another recommendation of the Delaware report.

Naloxone kit

Four out of five fatal overdoses reviewed by the Delaware state commission occurred in a private residence were Narcan was unavailable in nearly 93% of the cases. Abundant research has shown the life-saving benefits of distributing Narcan not only to people who are addicted to opioids or misusing them but also to pain patients being treated with high doses of opioid medications and their families and friends. After all, patients taking opiates for severe chronic pain are at risk of becoming dependent on the narcotic, and could suffer an accidental opiate overdose. It is simply a matter of brain neurochemistry that has no true moral component, and can impact patients of any socioeconomic class.

Making Emergency Department physicians more responsive to the opioid epidemic often means educating colleagues and changing hospital culture. Many emergency physicians do not feel adequately prepared to treat with Subcutex—there are real or perceived logistical impediments like obtaining prior authorization from insurers. Emergency physicians should be encouraged to complete the training necessary to get a waiver to prescribe Subcutext, which greatly enhances their confidence and ability to respond to patients with Opioid Use Disorder.

The NIDA-MED website includes firsthand stories from physicians implementing emergency department overdose treatment with buphrenorphine and prescribed Suboxone to patients suffering from Opioid Use Disorder. Gail D’Onofrio, the lead researcher of the 2015 JAMA study, translated the study findings into practical videos for Emergency Room clinicians now posted on NIDA-MED. NIDA has also developed a companion, comprehensive set of resources to help emergency physicians initiate buprenorphine. In fact, initiating buprenorphine treatment in the emergency room includes step-by-step guidance on buprenorphine treatment, discharge instructions, instructional videos for clinicians on interacting with Opioid Use Disorder patients, and other useful materials.

[PLEASE NOTE: I have added the following sections to Dr. Volkow’s blog post.

Let’s Take a Look at Opioid Use Disorder

DSM 5

The American Psychiatric Association¹ included a comprehensive explanation of Opioid Use Disorder in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Ed. (DSM-5), beginning at page 541. Essentially, Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) is a problematic pattern of opioid use leading to clinically-significant impairment or distress, as manifested by at least two of the following, occurring within a 12-month period:

  1. Opioids are often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended [by the prescribing physician].
  2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control opioid use.
  3. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the opioid, use the opioid, or recover from its effects.
  4. Craving or a strong desire or urge to use opioids.
  5. Recurrent opioid use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.
  6. Continued opioid use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of opioids.
  7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of opioid use.
  8. Recurrent opioid use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  9. Continued opioid use despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance.
  10. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: (a) a need for markedly increased amounts of opioids to achieve intoxication or desired effect; (b) a markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of an opioid. NOTE: This criterion is not considered to be met for those taking opioids solely under appropriate medical supervision.
  11. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: (a) the characteristic opioid withdrawal syndrome (refer to Criteria A and B of the criteria set for opioid withdraw in the DMS-5, p. 547-548; (b) opioids (or a closely-related substance) are taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms. NOTE: This criterion is not considered to be met for those individuals taking opioids solely under appropriate medical supervision.

Healthcare is not yet doing enough to avail itself of an effective referral system in the opioid crisis: using visits to emergency rooms to get patients with Opioid Use Disrder on medication and provide them with Naloxone. Intervening in these simple ways would greatly help reduce the shocking numbers of deaths from opioids in this country.

Are You Struggling?

I was obsessed with alcohol and drugs for nearly four decades of my life, which caused horrific and lasting consequences. I ended up serving three years in a state prison around the time I turned 20 years old. My history of using had started in early summer of 1977 shortly after graduating high school. I enjoyed the escape these mind-altering (numbing?) substances provided. Admittedly, it was quite fun at first. Within months, I became dependent on drugs and alcohol in order to function and to feel any degree of release from the demons of my past and the obsessive thoughts in my brain. I couldn’t laugh, relax, enjoy sex or food, or sleep unless I first got high or drunk. Sadly, I struggled with active addiction from shortly after my 18th birthday in 1977 to June 8, 2019.

I had started smoking cannabis and popping oxycodone pills during early Spring of 2018 in an attempt to self-medicate my depression, anxiety, and severe back pain secondary to a construction-related injury several years ago. Looking at the above description of Opioid Use Disorder established by the DSM-5, when in active opiate addiction I exhibit ten out of eleven of the criteria needed for a definitive diagnosis! I am sixty years old now, and I am finally looking at who I am in Christ. I am clean from opiates and cannabis for nearly 120 days, and I no longer dwell on the decades of constant failure. I should mention that I nearly took my own life several times during  my long history of active addiction. My struggle with opiates is fairly recent, and has taken me to places that I did not wish to go. Thankfully, I am confronting this issue with confidence in the power of the Name of Jesus and my unmitigated committment to change, never to be the same.

I work extensively today with a drug and alcohol counselor who is a believer in Christ. The ability to focus on Christ in therapy sessions provides an opportunity to examine the “spiritual malady” of addiction. I am constantly in contact with several elders at my home church who have become mentors. I am “coachable” today. I have started speaking regularly with Duche Bradley on the phone. He has a nationwide ministry of speaking in prisons and high schools about addiction and who we are in Christ Jesus. You can hear his “white chair” testimony here. He has led me through renouncing pharmacia and all nature of flesh-bound habits and addictions, and has encouraged my growth in Christ in order to move forward with my own ministry. Duche said to me, “Brother, if you do these things, you will be blown away about the many permanent changes in your character and your life.”

Nowadays, after having submited to Jesus Christ as my “higher power”—indeed, as my Savior and my Lord and Teacher—the obsession to use chemicals is gone. Likewise, the physical compulsion or craving has been defeated. I could never accomplish this under my own power. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us that alcohol is cunning, baffling, and powerful! No human power can relieve our alcoholism, but God can and will if we seek Him. The same applies to drug addiction. After all, a drug is a drug whether you drink it, snort it, or shoot it into your veins.

It is only through admitting my weaknesses and deciding to work with those who have risen above the evil and failure in their lives that I can get on with my life: studying theology on the master’s degree level, teaching weekly Bible study lessons at a local homeless shelter, and reaching out to newcomers at 12-Step meetings that are presently on a rapid decent into the living hell of active addiction. By accepting God’s “call” on my life, I can move toward a ministry of evangelism, applied apologetics, and lecturing, writing about, and teaching about Christianity and the release we all can have through Jesus. This is my life (as it was always meant to be), and I am happy to finally get on with living it!

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Given the near impossibility of quitting a mind-altering substance on your own, I highly suggest you reach out to someone who’s been there. Check your local government phone number pages in the phone book or, better, yet, do a Google search for A.A. or N.A. If, however, you are in the middle of a psychological or physical life-threatening crisis secondary to substance abuse, Please Call 911.

With suicides on the rise, the federal government wants to make the National Crisis Hotline easier and quicker to use. A proposed three-digit number — 988 — could replace the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The FCC presented the idea to Congress in a report earlier this month and is expected to release more information and seek public comment about the proposal in the coming months. PLEASE REMEMBER: You are not alone.

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¹ American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth ed. (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing (2013), pp. 547-548.

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Recovery Advocacy Update

Startling data recently made public show the details of how pharmaceutical companies saturated the country with opioids. In the seven years from 2006 to 2012, America’s biggest drug companies shipped 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills in the United States. The result? Opioid-related deaths soared in communities where the pills flowed most. These new revelations come from the Washington Post, which spent a year in court to gain access to a DEA database that tracks the path of every single pain pill sold in the United States.

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The database reveals what each company knew about the number of pills it was shipping and dispensing and precisely when they were aware of those volumes, year-by-year, town-by-town. The data will be valuable to the attorneys litigating cases to hold manufacturers accountable, including a huge multi-district case in Ohio, where thousands of documents were filed last Friday. The data show that opioid manufacturers and distributors knowingly flooded the market as the overdose crisis raged and red flags were everywhere.

The Post has also published the data at county and state levels in order to help the public understand the impact of years of prescription pill shipments has had on their communities. Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation says to expect many reports from local journalists using the data to explain the causes and impact of the opioid crisis in their communities. The Post did its own local deep-dive, taking a close look this weekend at two Ohio counties that soon will be at the center of the bug multi-district litigation. Barring a settlement, the two counties are scheduled to go to trial in October as the first case among the consolidated lawsuits brought by about 2,000 cities, counties, Native American tribes and other plaintiffs.

Meanwhile, the CDC posted preliminary data suggesting that the number of Americans who died from drug overdoses finally fell 5% in 2018 after years of significant increases. This new data, while still preliminary, covers all of 2018, so it is firmer. And it is a rare positive sign. But it’s only one year and no cause for celebration or complacency—especially with continued funding for opioid crisis grants are uncertain and the decline in deaths anything but uniform across the states. For example, 18 states still saw increases in 2018. Policymakers must be reminded that we’re still very much in the midst of the nation’s worst-ever addiction crisis—one from which it will take years to recover. Federal funding remains essential, as advocate Ryan Hampton points out in his latest piece making the case for the CARE Act, a Congressional bill that would invest $100 billion over the next 10 years.

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If you missed the premiere of  “The First Day,” a powerful, one-hour documentary that shows the evolved talk of former NBA-player-turned-recovery advocate Chris Herren, you can catch it again July 30 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on ESPN. It is also now available for sale as a download. Herren has spoken to more than a million young people, and the film follows him on a dozen or so speaking engagements up and down the East Coast.

Delta Air Lines announced that naloxone, the medication used to treat (reverse) an opioid overdose, will be available in all emergency medical kits on flights beginning this Fall.

Delta’s decision comes after a passenger tweeted that a man died aboard a Delta flight last weekend from an opioid overdose. It’s unfathomable why naloxone isn’t already on all flights for all airlines. Last year, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation joined the Association of Flight Attendants in urging the FAA to require it. No one should have to die before airlines take this common-sense step.

Oklahoma’s lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson went to the judge, who will decide later this summer whether to hold the drugmaker accountable for the state’s opioid epidemic. Oklahoma is seeking more than $17.5 billion to abate the costs of opioid addiction. Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical settled their part of the Oklahoma case. But they and other drugmakers and distributors face some 2,000 similar lawsuits by states and local municipalities.

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Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company owned by the Sackler family, invented the so-called non-addictive drug OxyContin. The company was found to have falsified the addiction rate at less than 1% when in fact it was over 10%. Raymond Sackler had a personal net worth of $13 billion in 2016. He passed away on July 17, 2017. The Louvre in Paris has removed the Sackler family name from its walls, becoming the first major museum to erase its public association with the philanthropist family linked with the opioid crisis in the United States.

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Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has written and spoken extensively about the importance of prevention in addressing the opioid crisis. NIDA studies have shown that teens who misuse prescription opioids are more likely to initiate heroin use. You can visit NIDA’s site by clicking here.

 

 

The Importance of Prevention in Addressing the Opioid Crisis

NIDA Banner Science of Abuse and Addiction

From the Blog of Dr. Lora Volkow
Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

June 27, 2019

As our communities, healthcare systems, and government agencies join in the effort to reverse the epidemic of opioid overdoses and solve the opioid crisis, it is not enough to focus all our resources on treating people who are already addicted to opioids. Keeping people who do not have an opioid use disorder from becoming addicted is an equally important task [italics mine]. Addressing over-prescribing of pain medications through improved pain management and prescription monitoring has been one important prevention approach; and as illicit opioids like heroin and imported fentanyl become more prevalent, reducing the supply of those substances through law enforcement efforts is also crucial. But reducing the demand for opioids by addressing the reasons people turn to them and become addicted in the first place is just as vital and fundamental to ensuring that a new drug epidemic does not follow once the opioid crisis is contained.  

Research on preventing drug use by addressing vulnerability factors that increase the risk for substance use disorders is an important component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) HEAL (Helping to End Addition Long-Term™) Initiative. Specifically, the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study being partially funded by HEAL will examine how the human brain develops in the transition from infancy into early adolescence. Evaluating the effects of fetal drug exposures, adverse environments, genetics, mental illness will provide knowledge to help us understand how these risk factors operate in conferring vulnerability for substance use disorders.

Abundant research by NIDA-funded investigators over the past few decades has shown that positively altering a child’s life trajectory by reducing various risk factors, strengthening protective factors, and increasing access to resources can reduce or delay later drug use as well as minimize other adverse outcomes like criminality or other mental illness. Risk factors addressed by early childhood interventions can include poor self-regulation, aggression, or insecure attachment to parents. Those addressed in family and school prevention interventions at all ages through the teen years include lack of parental supervision, exposure to drugs at home or at school, and stresses from poverty, neglect, or abuse.

Prevention programs can take many forms, but all in one way or another address these risk factors and/or bolster factors like self-control, peer relationships, or other age-appropriate skills. These forms of resilience may make all the difference in the young person’s life when faced with the opportunities and temptations to begin smoking, drinking, or using drugs when they are adolescents, despite whatever adversity they may have experienced when younger. Effective prevention can even begin as early as the prenatal period: For example, an intervention in which trained nurses visit and provide guidance to first-time mothers during their pregnancy and in the first two years of their child’s life was shown to be effective at improving various cognitive and behavioral outcomes into adolescence, including reduced substance use and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

The stresses of impoverished environments negatively impact brain development, but a striking finding from prevention research is that interventions can protect against or reverse some of these neurobiological impacts. For example, a family-focused intervention with poor families in rural Georgia protected against poverty-associated neurobiological changes to brain areas involved in learning and stress reactivity. And maltreated children in foster care who received a prevention intervention for preschoolers were better able to regulate stress, as measured by cortisol levels.

Because risk factors for drug use are common to other behavioral problems, most prevention interventions do not focus solely on preventing drug use or on preventing a single type of drug use. A wide range of problems can be addressed or averted by addressing core risk or protective factors. A few programs, however, such as a middle-school intervention called PROSPER, have shown specific benefits at preventing nonmedical use of prescription drugs.

An important research priority is finding out how to widen the adoption and effective implementation of evidence-supported prevention programs. The menu of such interventions is diverse, but few of the options are widely used. Part of the problem is that high-quality intervention programs are costly, and communities may be reluctant to invest the needed resources when the payoff may be years or more in the future. However, studies have strikingly shown that many programs more than pay for themselves. Like other investments—saving for retirement, for instance—primary prevention of substance use and addiction requires long-term thinking and balancing the short-term costs in money and time against the long-term benefits of a healthier society down the road.

The HEAL initiative will also prioritize research on developing interventions targeted towards the transition from late adolescence into adulthood, the age where there is the largest increase in initiating opioid use. NIDA will be funding research to create an evidence base for new strategies and interventions to prevent opioid initiation and opioid use disorder (OUD) in older adolescents and young adults in healthcare, justice, and other settings.

In a new Commentary, Targeting Youth to Prevent Later Substance Use Disorder: An Underutilized Response to the US Opioid Crisis, in the American Journal of Public Health, colleagues at NIDA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) highlight the importance of research on primary prevention for helping to address the opioid crisis. Such research will provide us not only with scientific solutions to address the current opioid crisis but will provide us with the knowledge and tools to protect us from future drug crises.

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/Treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on our Treatment page.

AT-121: A Promising Alternative to Opioid Pain Medications

By Eric Sarlin, M.Ed., M.A.
NIDA Notes Contributing Writer
National Institute on Drug Abuse

Dr. Eric Sarlin’s recent research reveals an experimental compound with a dual action at two opioid receptors which may provide powerful pain relief without many of the usual harmful opioid side effects. The compound may also have potential as a treatment for opioid addiction.

The reason AT-121 is promising is because it provides pain relief without producing the side-effect of euphoria.

This is a novel compound representing potential advancement toward the goal of non-addictive pain medications that are at least as effective as opioids but without typical opioid liabilities. The new compound—called AT-121—may also have potential as a treatment alternative for opioid addiction. Most of the potent analgesics currently in use act through mu-opioid receptors. AT-121 seems to relieve pain in monkeys without causing physical dependence. Most pain medications work by activating a receptor in the neurons the mu-opiate receptor. Mei-Chuan Ko, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, says “Oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl, heroin—they all work through the mu-receptor.” Ko is one of the authors of the study.

Dr. Nurulain Zaveri and colleages at Astraea Therapeutics, manufacturer of AT-121, used medicinal chemistry, computer modeling, and structure-based drug design to create and develop AT-121. Like opioids—such as morphine and oxycodone—AT-121 also binds to the mu-opioid receptor. Unlike those opioids, AT-121 also binds to another opioid receptor called the nociceptin/orphanin FQ peptide receptor. According to Dr. Zaveri, this interaction with the NOP receptor enhances AT-121’s analgesic effect and blocks unwanted side effects often seen with current opioid medications.

References

NIDA. (February 12, 2019). “A Promising Alternative to Opioid Pain Medications.”

How People with Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) Can Lend a Needed Hand in Addiction Research

FROM THE MONTHLY BLOG OF DR. LORA VOLKOW
April 22, 2019

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One of the major challenges in health science today is that not enough patients participate in clinical trials and similar studies. Without volunteers willing and able to participate in studies testing new treatments or therapeutic approaches for cancer or Alzheimer’s, for example, researchers cannot test their effectiveness. There are many reasons for the lack of participation in medical research: Patients often are not aware of studies, or they don’t see any direct benefit from participating. Many clinical trials for new cancer treatments, for example, have been delayed or even cancelled altogether because of the difficulty of recruiting participants.

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In research testing new medications or behavioral treatments for substance use disorders, the obstacles to recruiting study volunteers are even more daunting. Just finding participants can be a challenge, since they may not intersect with the healthcare system for their addiction, the same way someone with cancer or Alzheimer’s would. Only a fraction of people with substance use disorders receive care from physicians who may be in a position to know about or link them to research studies being planned. Most recruitment for clinical trials related to opioid addiction medications, for instance, is done via ads placed at large opioid treatment centers where patients on methadone receive their daily doses. 

People with substance use disorders already face stigma and the fear of further social or legal consequences of their addiction, and this deters potential volunteers from signing up to participate in research. Some distrust the medical profession altogether. Many people with addiction do not want or believe they need treatment at all. Additionally, because many people with addictions who might otherwise want to participate in a trial are unemployed, poor, or homeless (perhaps as a result of their substance use), they may lack the resources or access to transportation necessary to visit a hospital or research center regularly. Often as many as half or even more than half of participants recruited for a trial are not able to complete it.

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Scientists studying new treatment approaches for addiction must always be thinking about how they can make their research studies more practical and feasible in the real world. They must make study participation easy and appealing and the studies accessible—including access at odd hours or weekends for those whose jobs or school prevent participation during regular work hours. Also, people with addictions often use multiple substances, and this commonly excludes them from studies testing treatments for a single substance, due to strict criteria on who can be included in a trial. Yet the reality is that addiction is complex, and often involves not only use of multiple drugs but also co-occurring mental and physical illnesses. Designing more inclusive studies and clinical trials that can take this complexity into account will be necessary for scientific advancement in treating and preventing addiction.

An all-hands-on-deck approach is needed in order to confront America’s current drug crisis, and the needed hands must include families and individuals directly affected by substance use disorders. By increasing participation in research by those who most stand to benefit, we can find solutions to the complex addiction issues facing our nation today. It is also an opportunity for individuals suffering from addiction to participate in clinical research, just as people with other medical conditions do.

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For more information on the benefits of participating in a clinical trial—for addiction or any other disease—please feel free to visit https://www.nih.gov/health-information/nih-clinical-research-trials-you. Are you a provider? You can learn about trials to recommend to your patients here: https://www.nih.gov/health-information/nih-clinical-research-trials-you/finding-clinical-trial.

FIND HELP NEAR YOU

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/Treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. In addition, you can find contact information in your phone book or online for Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery, or other 12-step programs.