Recovery 2019: The Year in Review

From the Recovery Advocacy Update blog of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation originally posted on January 7, 2020.

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As Americans reflect on the past decade, the much more defining story, of course, was the opioid crisis, which fueled an unprecedented overdose epidemic that has barely begun to abate. Drug overdoses claimed a mind-boggling half-million lives in the 2010s and devastated countless others, while exposing the inadequacy of our nation’s overall approach and commitment to preventing and treating addiction, and supporting long-term recovery.

Amid the tragedy, we saw the beginning of positive change in addiction-related public attitudes, perceptions, policies, practices and systems. Hazelden Betty Ford has helped lead the way with many changes of its own. They began using opioid-addiction-treatment medications in 2012, and became a strong advocate for comprehensive care that includes medication options, psychosocial therapies and peer support. They emerged as a leading voice for breaking down barriers between the medical and Twelve Step communities.

Hazelden Betty Ford also transitioned to an insurance model so more people could access care; evolved away from the 28-day residential standard to a more individualized approach that enables people to stay engaged longer over multiple levels of care; launched a new era of aggressive collaboration with the broader healthcare field; made the evidence-based therapy “motivational interviewing” core to a more patient-centered clinical approach; initiated a new, innovative system for capturing and acting upon patient feedback throughout the treatment experience; developed new recovery coaching options; and much more. In addition, the foundation spoke up vigorously about the need for ethical and quality standards in recovery, and continued to support related industry reform efforts. It was a decade of big change for them, and they will likely evolve a great deal more in the 2020s, as they have consistently done since 1949.

Broader changes to the many systems that affect people with addiction are coming more slowly, but things seem to be pointed in the direction of progress. Indeed, most addiction specialists want addiction prevented and treated, rather than stigmatized and criminalized. The question arises, though: Does that mean it is wise to fully legalize and commercialize more addictive substances? Or are there policies and approaches in between that promote public health better than either extreme?

In the new decade, marijuana will be a case study and likely a defining story. The experiment with full legalization looks troubling so far. State-level data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health finds that marijuana use in “legal” states among youth, young adults, and the general population continued its multi-year upward trend in several categories. New data and studies come in weekly, it seems—consistently showing cause for greater public health concerns. One of the foundation’s 2020 resolutions is to help ensure the facts about marijuana and the risks of expanded use get more attention.

One big concern, for example, is that marijuana vaping by teens surged in 2019, signaling that more adolescents are using the drug and consuming highly potent vape oils, according to new government data and drug-use researchers. Federal regulators are paying attention. They shut down 44 websites advertising illicit THC vaping cartridges, part of a crackdown on suppliers amid a nationwide spate of lung injuries tied to black-market cannabis vaping products.

The outbreak of severe lung injuries may have peaked, but cases are still surfacing, and the agency is urging doctors to monitor people closely after hospitalization, due to the risk of continued vaping. One Harvard graduate student writes, “I nearly died from vaping THC, and you could too.” Marijuana and vaping are both among the issues coming up on the campaign trail, and recent polling released by the National Council for Behavioral Health shows strong bipartisan agreement among registered voters in New Hampshire that the federal government is not doing enough to address mental health and addiction in America. Mental Health for US, a coalition trying to raise more awareness in the campaign, held a recent forum in New Hampshire. Watch the livestream replay here.

In Washington, the White House hosted a summit of its own on efforts to deliver mental health treatment to people experiencing homelessness, violence and substance use disorder. Watch Part 1 of the event, Part 2, and the President’s remarks. The Administration also issued its long-awaited vaping policy last week, with the FDA banning fruit, mint and dessert-flavored vaping cartridges but continuing to allow menthol- and tobacco-flavored cartridges as well as all flavored e-cigarette liquids. Many worry the guidelines don’t go far enough.

Since the foundation’s last update, the President also signed a $1.4 trillion spending package passed by Congress, averting a government shutdown. The package maintains funding levels for most areas relevant to the field of addiction counseling, with modest increases in a few SAMHSA grants as well as at the CDC and at the National Institutes of Health. Most notably, the legislation gives states more flexibility in spending State Opioid Response (SOR) grant funds; specifically, they’ll now be able to use the money to also address the growing problems associated with addiction to meth, cocaine and other stimulants. Here’s a thorough overview from our friends at the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors.

If you are interested in more information about these topics or the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, please visit their website by clicking here.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder and want more information or help quitting, please contact your local AA or NA chapter, or click here to visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse official website. You can also scroll back to the top of this post and click on the COMMENT bar to open an dialog with me. I will be glad to speak with you any time.

Illegal Pills: An Overlooked Threat

A Joint Project by National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, and the Partnership For Safe Medicines. This Article was Originally Posted to opioidlibrary.org.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

For less than $500, an individual with ill intent can purchase a pill press and a counterfeit pill mold that allows them to turn cheap, readily available, unregulated ingredients into a six-figure profit. Criminals rely upon these pill presses to create dangerous counterfeit medications with toxic substances such as cheaply imported Fentanyl. Their deadly home-made products have reached 46 states in the United States. Of grave concern is the significant lack of manufacturing control utilized in the making of these counterfeit products. The inexperience of these “garage manufacturers” has killed unsuspecting Americans in 30 states.

Counterfeit medications that can kill someone with a single pill are a reality that is increasing at an alarming rate. This is a critical health issue that all three of our organizations are urgently striving to stay on top of.How do these criminals get their hands on pill presses? How are they evading customs inspections? Is possession of these presses illegal and if so, why are more people not charged with it?Recently, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators and The Partnership for Safe Medicines joined together to research the extent of the pill press challenge for law enforcement and other first-responders. Key findings include:

  • Pill presses are broadly available for sale on the Internet and virtually untracked. These devices are successfully smuggled through customs because the enormous volume of packages makes compliance challenging. Data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shows pill press seizures at International Mail Facilities are increasing every year, growing 19 fold from 2011 to 2017.
  • The broad availability and sale of pill presses allow novice criminals to make millions of doses of nearly perfect-looking counterfeits that can have deadly consequences.
  • Possession of a pill press, while not well regulated, is at most a violation of a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) registration requirement carrying no jail time. It only becomes a crime once you add a counterfeit pill mold. However, the prosecution of individuals for possession of a pill press with a counterfeit pill mold is also a rare occurrence and does not carry a sentence high enough to be a deterrent.
  • Disrupting the availability of pill presses will be a challenging process. Our research suggests that increasing criminal penalties for the possession or non-registration of a pill press alone is not likely to provide a sufficient deterrent because it relies on a change in charging behavior by prosecutors. Note: Some law enforcement interviewed suggested adding a sentencing enhancement that increases penalties for committing a drug-related crime with a pill press and suggested exploring serialization or registration as a technique to increase the frequency of indictments for illegal possession and manufacturing operations.

METHODOLOGY

To develop this study, staff from all three of our organizations conducted many hours of interviews, studied dozens of prosecutions, and reviewed interviews with many families of victims killed by illegally pressed pills. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (NADDI), and The Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM) each bring complementary expertise in patient safety, law enforcement, and regulatory issues related to the secure pharmaceutical supply chain. The goal is to help understand why America has seen a sudden increase in domestic counterfeit production, its impact on patient safety and law enforcement, and what is required to address the problem.

INTRODUCTION TO THE PROBLEM

We are currently living through a public health emergency of unprecedented proportions: the opioid crisis. A factor that has made this crisis worse is how cheap and accessible tableting machines (often called pill presses) and counterfeit pill molds are a readily available tool to drug traffickers and organized criminal organizations. According to a 2016 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) brief, a small investment of $1,000 for a pill press and a pill mold, and a few thousand more for materials, including illicitly imported Fentanyl and binding agents, could yield between $5 to $20 million in salable counterfeit opioid pills. Desk-top pill presses can produce hundreds of pills per hour while easily fitting inside the trunk of a car. The demand and supply for these counterfeit pills have increased rapidly due to a multitude of varying factors. As regulators and policymakers focus on the problem of opioid over-prescribing by implementing important regulations such as prescription limits and production quota reductions, the street price of genuine diverted opioids increases.

In addition, illegal websites, many of them posing as Canadian pharmacies and/or operating on the increasingly accessible dark web have proliferated, and peddle an ever-increasing supply of counterfeit opioids to unsuspected patients. Pill presses provide an even faster and easier way to supply the increased demand. Today, pill presses, pill molds, and the ingredients to make counterfeit pills are illegally smuggled into the United States through trafficking networks, commercial cargo, and small packages with ease.

The overall number of products being shipped in small packages creates a volume so large that many things, including pill presses and molds, are easily concealed. Since Fentanyl is very potent, importing just a kilogram of illicit Fentanyl can help create a multi-million dollar operation. The pill presses themselves hide among the even larger amount of non-medical products, machine parts, industrial parts, and legitimate merchandise. Pill presses are such a poorly-recognized item that sellers can merely break them into three parts to completely obscure their nature.© March 2019 NABP, NADDI, and PSM.

Once illegal pill presses arrive in the United States, the “bootleg” product created can wreak havoc across an entire city in a single weekend. United States law enforcement has seized pill presses capable of producing thousands of counterfeits pills per hour. A single, poorly-made counterfeit containing one extra milligram of Fentanyl is deadly. As PSM’s research shows, fake pill makers both in the United States and outside the United States frequently add toxic levels of Fentanyl to counterfeit pills. More than half of the states in the United States have seen deaths due to these counterfeits containing lethal doses of synthetic opioids, especially Fentanyl.

While people struggling with substance use disorder are at the highest risk of being exposed to these dangerous counterfeits, the increased presence of deadly Fentanyl-laced counterfeits in America has seeped into every community. As these pills circulate, they find their way into the medicine cabinets of people unaware of the existence and potency of these “knockoff ” products. These “knockoffs ” are finding their way into the hands of United States residents and killing them. The existence of a counterfeit pill endangers all Americans, not just the purchaser.

HOW THESE PILLS ENTER THE MARKET

The declaration said the package contained a “hole puncher,” but upon examination, CBP concluded it was a pill press. CBP queried the DEA because it is illegal to import pill presses without prior permission from the agency.

The DEA Coordinator alerted field agents working on a case in the Long Beach, California area about the shipment and its intended destination. Multiple teams around the country were already working on investigations related to Subject Gary Resnik and his ring of drug dealers. The DEA obtained a warrant to put a GPS tracker on the pill press, and in April it was released to ship to Resnik and followed by law enforcement.It’s important to recognize when the interdiction process works. In this case, CBP caught the illegal pill press despite attempts to mislabel it to evade detection. Not only was it found, but it became a direct conduit and useful tool in uncovering a ring of counterfeiters and preventing the potential poisoning deaths of countless Americans. This is the type of story we heard over and over again as we talked to law enforcement; criminal conspiracies to make counterfeits require specific materials, and those materials are the threads you can follow to discover the crime and eradicate a criminal organization.

Based upon this data and other information gleaned during the investigation, the DEA agents working the case raided three locations used by the gang and seized six pill presses, presumably including the one shipped to them that was being monitored by law enforcement. While this case clearly outlines a success and is a great example of how the process is supposed to work, a few important lessons can be drawn from this example:

  1. Discovery of an illegal pill press’s importation is often used by law enforcement to locate illegal production sites, to uncover a counterfeiting ring, or to provide probable cause for search warrants and further investigation.
  2. This case study shows how well the interdiction and investigation teams can work, but also exemplifies how the criminal organization had already gotten their hands on five other pill presses that evaded interdiction.Seizures of pill presses are up 19-fold since 2011. In Tennessee alone, law enforcement seized 12 pill presses in 2017.

On the morning of September 18, 2017, while his parents were sleeping, ten-month-old Leo Holtz put a pretty colored pill that had fallen out of his father’s pocket into his mouth. Around 8:25 am his parents woke and found their baby blue and unresponsive. They called 9-1-1, but Leo could not be revived and was declared dead at Rady Children’s Hospital. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, investigators believe Leo’s father, Colin, bought the pills from Melissa Scanlan, who sourced her counterfeit Oxycodone pills from a drug cartel in Mexico. How-ever, even if the counterfeit Fentanyl pills came from someone else, nothing will ever change the fact that ten-month-old Leo Holz’s life was cut short because of a counterfeit Oxycodone pill made with Fentanyl. 

FEDERAL LAWS AND REGULATIONS

Possession of a pill press is not illegal. Buying or selling requires notification to the DEA, but there are no known penalties failing to do so. Possession of a counterfeit pill mold with or without a pill press violates 21 United States Code, § 333, with a criminal penalty of up to one year in jail and a possible fine of $1,000. If the perpetrator intended to defraud or mislead others regarding pill manufacturing the penalty can be up to three years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Actual use of a counterfeit pill press or pill mold in commerce violates 21 United States Code, § 333, and carries a penalty of up to one year in prison and a possible fine of $1,000. Again, if the perpetrator intended to defraud or mislead others regarding the authenticity of the pill the penalty can be up to three years and a possible fine of up to $10,000.

Additionally, buying, selling, reselling, giving, importing, and exporting of pill presses is regulated by DEA. Any time a change of ownership occurs for one of these machines, the DEA requires you to file an electronic report. Importation requires this notification to be made in advance. Domestic transactions require that this notification is submitted within 15 days of the transaction. Domestic transactions also require additional verbal notification to the local DEA office or Special Agent in Charge. The electronic requirement for all transactions including domestic was added in 2017 and is outlined in this helpful presentation from the DEA’s Diversion Control Department.

STATE LAWS AND REGULATIONS

Many, but not all, states have laws that govern the practice of manufacturing prescription medications. These statutes often mirror the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Illegally owning a pill press with a mold to produce counterfeit pills is a criminal violation of such state laws. It’s important to note the distinction. The possession of a mold used to make copies of a trademarked pill (with the imprint of a trademarked logo) is an illegal act under state law. Only a handful of states regulate the pill press itself. Two of these states are Texas and Florida.

Discovery of a pill press may indicate that someone is engaging in the crime of counterfeit medicine manufacturing. Following the pill press to its destination can lead investigators to members of a criminal conspiracy that they might not have known about. It can also provide reasonable cause needed to obtain a search warrant. Dan Zsido, a veteran law enforcement officer from Florida and the National Training and Education Director for NADDI, explained that there is no point bringing a charge that will be dropped. He said, “Loading up a case with charges consumes valuable, limited, court resources with charges that are just going to be dropped or merged into the more major indictment anyway. This is how narcotics prosecutions have worked for years: if you get charged with trafficking, nobody will take the time to charge you with drug paraphernalia.”

Advocates who study medicine safety detest the broadly dispersed, cottage industry of drug counterfeiters. As with the fear of small meth labs percolating throughout the country, they are concerned that hundreds of criminals are capable of producing millions of doses of perfect-looking but deadly fake medicines. It is a public health and public safety concern.Even if you could make Fentanyl in the United States disappear tomorrow, this manufacturing capacity would still exist. Criminals could turn to other substances to use as the active ingredient in their counterfeit medicines. Unfortunately, drug traffickers adapt to the “drug of the day,” so merely removing a specific controlled substance does not minimize the threat of drug activity; it’s a social behavior issue.

IN CONCLUSION

Today the volume of medical products coming across the border is enormous. FDA Com-missioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. reported in March 2018 that less than 1% of all medical products coming into the country through International Mail Facilities are inspected. Counterfeit medicines are already extremely difficult to detect. If we legalize drug importation, it will be the same as tripling the size of that haystack (or worse). Finding the Fentanyl-type substances used to make these counterfeits products domestically with unregulated pill presses will be even more difficult and will create an even higher risk of harm to human life.

Law enforcement resources are currently stretched thin stemming the tide of synthetic opioids that are flooding our country. Many of them are presently chasing counterfeit opioids that are flooding our streets, as well as, responding to the overwhelming increases in daily overdoses. If we flood the country with suspect medications through drug importation, our first-responders’ workload would significantly increase because of the increased suspect drug supply and the resulting fallout.

Using Science to Address the Opioid Crisis in America

FROM THE BLOG OF NORA VOLKOW, MD
September 19, 2018

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The public health emergency regarding opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose affects millions of Americans and requires innovative scientific solutions. Today, during National Prescription Opioid and Heroin Awareness Week, we are sharing news of an important step towards these solutions through the HEALing Communities Study—an integrated approach to test an array of interventions for opioid misuse and addiction in communities hard hit by the opioid crisis.

Six months ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, a bold multi-agency effort to catalyze scientific discoveries to stem the opioid crisis. HEAL will support research across NIH, using $500,000 of fiscal year 2018 funds, to improve prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder and enhance pain management.

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Through HEAL, NIH will harness the power of science to bring new hope for people, families, and communities affected by this devastating crisis. The current menu of evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery interventions has not been fully implemented nationwide. An unacceptably low fraction – about one fifth — of people with opioid use disorder receive any treatment at all. Of those who do enter treatment, only about a third receive any medications—which are universally acknowledged to be the standard of care—as part of their treatment. However, even when medications are used as a component of treatment, the duration is typically shorter than clinically indicated, contributing to unacceptably high relapse rates within the first 6 months. 

To take on this challenge, as part of the broader HEAL initiative, NIH has partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to launch the HEALing Communities Study. This study will evaluate the impact of implementing an integrated set of evidence based practices for prevention and treatment of opioid use disorders in select communities with high rates of opioid overdose mortality, with a focus on significantly reducing opioid overdose fatalities by 40%. Targeted areas for intervention include decreasing the incidence of opioid use disorder, increasing the number of individuals receiving medications for opioid use disorder treatment, increasing treatment retention beyond 6 months, receiving recovery support services, and expanding the distribution of naloxone.

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Toward this goal, today NIDA issued funding opportunities for cooperative agreements for components of the HEALing Communities Study: a data coordinating center and up to three research sites to measure the impact of integrating evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery interventions for opioid misuse, opioid use disorder, opioid-related overdose events and fatalities across multiple settings, including primary care, behavioral health, and justice. We also encourage evidence-based interventions for prevention and treatment that involve community resources such as police departments, faith-based organizations, and schools, with a focus on rural communities and strong partnerships with state and local governments.

The evidence we generate though the HEALing Communities Study, the most ambitious implementation study in the addiction field to date, will help communities nationwide address the opioid crisis at the local level.  By testing interventions where they are needed the most, in close partnership with SAMHSA and other Federal partners, we will show how researchers, providers, and communities can come together and finally bring an end to this devastating public health crisis.

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.

Partnering With Dentists and Oral Surgeons to Fight Opiate Addiction

From the blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Executive Director of NIDA, posted July 25, 2018

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Reducing the reliance of doctors on potentially addictive opioid pain relievers has been one of the pillars of federal efforts to reverse the opioid crisis. Because many dental procedures such as extractions and other types of oral surgery often produce severe acute pain, dentists are among the largest prescribers of opioids. Thankfully, the dental profession has made significant progress in reducing opioid prescriptions. Two decades ago, when the opioid crisis was just starting, dentists accounted for 15.5 percent of all immediate-release opioid prescriptions; by 2012, they only wrote 6.4 percent of such prescriptions. Still, those in the oral health professions can play a key role in further improving the treatment of acute pain and making it safer.

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In March of this year, the American Dental Association (ADA) released a new policy on opiods, supporting limits on dosage and duration of opioid prescriptions and mandatory continuing education on their use, as well as recommending that dentists make use of their regional prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP). This policy is an important step toward protecting patients and their families from the potential harms of opioids. Following a meeting between representatives of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), and the ADA, NIDCR director Martha Somerman and Dr. Volkow wrote an editorial in this month’s issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association about how a partnership between NIH and oral health practitioners can continue to alleviate the opioid overdose epidemic.

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Increased knowledge of opioid prescribing practices among dentists, as well as among emergency department physicians when managing acute dental pain, is an important research priority. While dentists have reduced their opioid prescriptions, recent studies suggest the same is not true of emergency department providers when patients have dental pain. A study of Medicaid recipients showed that physicians in the ER prescribed opioids for dental pain five times more often than dentists in their own practices, and nurse practitioners in the ER prescribed opioids three times as often. Understanding the ways opioids are prescribed and the decisions underlying opioid prescribing can inform new clinical guidelines and policies to reduce the risks of opioid misuse. 

Concluding Remarks

Dentists can play a role in minimizing opioid abuse through patient education, careful patient assessment and referral for substance abuse treatment when indicated, and using tools such as prescription monitoring programs. Research is needed to determine the optimal number of doses needed to treat dental-related pain. Besides reducing their prescribing of opioids, these practitioners can learn to screen for opioid misuse and opioid use disorders, ultimately referring patients to treatment when indicated. To this end, NIDCR plans to fund research studies of interventions in rural communities.

These practitioners cannot assume that their prescribing of opioids does not affect the opioid abuse problem in the United States. Dentists, along with other prescribers, take steps to identify problems and minimize prescription opioid abuse through greater prescriber and patient education; use of peer-reviewed recommendations for analgesia; and, when indicated, the tailoring of the appropriate and legitimate prescribing of opioids to adequately treat pain.

Ambitious Research Plan to Help Solve the Opioid Crisis

From the blog of Dr. Lora Volkow, National Institute on Drug Abuse Posted June 12, 2018

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In spring 2018 Congress added an additional $500 million to the NIH budget to invest in the search for solutions to the opioid crisis. The Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) initiative is being kicked off June 12th with the announcement of several bold projects across NIH focusing on two main areas: improving opioid addiction treatments and enhancing pain management to prevent addiction and overdose. The funding NIDA is receiving will go toward the goal of addressing addiction in new ways, and creating better delivery systems for addictions counseling for those in need.

NIH will be developing new addiction treatments and overdose-reversal tools. Three medications are currently FDA-approved to treat opioid addiction. Lofexidine—a drug initially developed to treat high blood pressure—has just been approved to treat physical symptoms of opioid withdrawal. Narcan (naloxone) is available in injectable and intranasal formulations to reverse overdose. Regardless, more options are needed. One area of need involves new formulations of existing drugs, such as longer-acting formulations of opioid agonists and longer-acting naloxone formulations more suitable for reversing fentanyl overdoses. Compounds are also needed that target different receptor systems or immunotherapies for treating symptoms of withdrawal and craving in addition to the progression of opioid use disorders.

Much research already points to the benefits of increasing the availability of treatment options for Opioid Use Disorder (“OUD”), especially among populations currently embroiled in the justice system. Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network is working to create a network of researchers who can rapidly conduct studies aimed at improving access to high-quality, evidence-based addiction treatment in justice settings. It will involve implementing a national survey of addiction treatment delivery services in local and state justice systems; studying the effectiveness and adoption of medications, interventions, and technologies in those settings; and finding ways to use existing data sources as well as developing new research methods to ensure that interventions have the maximum impact.

The National Drug Abuse Treatment Clinical Trials Network (“CTN”) facilitates collaboration between NIDA, research scientists at universities, and a myriad of treatment providers in the community, with the aim of developing, testing, and implementing addiction treatments. As part of the HEAL initiative, the CTN Opioid Research Enhancement Project will greatly expand the CTN’s capacity to conduct trials by adding new sites and new investigators. The funds will also enable the expansion of existing studies and facilitate developing and implementing new studies to improve identification of opioid misuse and OUD. Further, it will enhance engagement and retention of patients in treatment in a variety of general medical settings, including primary care, emergency departments, ob/gyn, and pediatrics.

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A great tragedy of the opioid crisis is that there are a number of effective tools not being deployed effectively in communities in need. Only a fraction of people with OUD receive any treatment, and of those less than half receive medications that are universally acknowledged to be the standard of care. Moreover, patients often receive medications for too short a duration. As part of its HEAL efforts, NIDA will launch a multi-site implementation research study called the HEALing Communities Study in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The HEALing Communities Study will support research in up to three communities highly affected by the opioid crisis, which should help evaluate how the implementation of an integrated set of evidence-based interventions within healthcare, behavioral health, justice systems, and community organizations can work to decrease opioid overdoses and prevent and treat OUD. Lessons learned from this study will yield best practices that can then be applied to other communities across the nation.

The HEAL Initiative is a tremendous opportunity to focus taxpayer dollars effectively where they are needed the most: in applying science to find solutions to the worst drug crisis our country has ever seen.

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. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on our Treatment page.

Opioids

Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl, and pain relievers available by prescription such as codeine, oxycodone, Vicodin, morphine, and others.

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All opioids are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and on the spinal column. Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor, but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused (taken in a different way or in a larger quantity than prescribed, or taken without a doctor’s prescription). Regular use—even as prescribed by a doctor—can lead to dependence and, when misused, opioid pain relievers can lead to addiction, overdose, and death. 

An opioid overdose can be reversed with the drug naloxone (Narcan) when given right away. Improvements have been seen in some regions of the country in the form of decreasing availability of prescription opioid pain relievers and decreasing misuse among the Nation’s teens. However, since 2007, overdose deaths related to heroin have been increasing. Fortunately, effective medications exist to treat opioid use disorders including methadone, Buprenex and Vivitrol. 

A National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) study found that once treatment is initiated, both a Buprenex/Vivitrol combination and an extended-release Vivitrol formulation are similarly effective in treating opioid addiction. However, Vivitrol requires full detoxification, so initiating treatment among active users is difficult. These medications help many people recover from opioid addiction.

What are Prescription Opioids?

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Opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Some prescription opioids are made from the plant directly, and others are made by scientists in labs using the same chemical structure. Opioids are often used as medicines because they contain chemicals that relax the body and can relieve pain. Prescription opioids are used mostly to treat moderate to severe pain, though some opioids can be used to treat coughing and diarrhea. Opioids can also make people feel very relaxed and high, which is why they are sometimes used for non-medical reasons. This can be dangerous because opioids can be highly addictive. Overdoses and death are common. Heroin is one of the world’s most dangerous opioids, and is never used as a medicine in the United States.

How Do People Misuse Opioids?

Prescription opioids used for pain relief are generally safe when taken for a short time and as directed by a doctor, but they can be misused. People misuse prescription opioids by:

  • taking the medicine in a way or dose other than prescribed
  • taking someone else’s prescription medicine
  • taking the medicine for the effect it causes—getting high

How Do Prescription Opioids Affect the Brain?

Opioids bind to and activate opioid receptors on cells located in many areas of the brain, spinal cord, and other organs in the body, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure. When opioids attach to these receptors, they block pain signals sent from the brain to the body and release large amounts of dopamine throughout the body. This release can strongly reinforce the act of taking the drug, making the user want to repeat the experience.

Opioid misuse can cause slowed breathing, which can cause hypoxia, a condition that results when too little oxygen reaches the brain. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term psychological and neurological effects, including coma, permanent brain damage, or death. Researchers are also investigating the long-term effects of opioid addiction on the brain, including whether damage can be reversed.

What are Other Health Effects of Opioid Medications?

Older adults are at higher risk of accidental misuse or abuse because they typically have multiple prescriptions and chronic diseases, increasing the risk of drug-drug and drug-disease interactions, as well as a slowed metabolism that affects the breakdown of drugs. Sharing drug injection equipment and having impaired judgment from drug use can increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV.

Prescription Opioids and Heroin

Prescription opioids and heroin are chemically similar and can produce a similar high. Heroin is typically cheaper and easier to get than prescription opioids, so some people switch to using heroin instead. Nearly 80 percent of Americans using heroin (including those in treatment) reported misusing prescription opioids prior to using heroin. However, while prescription opioid misuse is a risk factor for starting heroin use, only a small fraction of people who misuse pain relievers switch to heroin. This suggests that prescription opioid misuse is just one factor leading to heroin use.

The Numbers

More than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids. This number has nearly doubled over the past ten years. 2015 was the worst year for drug overdoses in U.S. history. Then 2016 came along. In that year alone, drug overdoses killed more people than the entire Vietnam War did.

A chart of US drug overdoses going back to 1999.

The Opioid Epidemic Explained

This latest drug epidemic is not solely about illegal drugs. It began, in fact, with a legal drug. Back in the 1990s, doctors were persuaded to treat pain as a serious medical issue. There’s a good reason for that: About 100 million U. S. adults suffer from chronic pain, according to a report from the Institute of Medicine.

Chronic Pain The Silent Condition

Pharmaceutical companies took advantage of this concern. Through a big marketing campaign they got doctors to prescribe products like OxyContin and Percocet in droves — even though the evidence for opioids treating long-term non-cancer related chronic pain is very weak despite their effectiveness for severe short-term, acute pain—while the evidence that opioids cause harm in the long term is very strong. So painkillers inundated society, landing in the hands of not just patients but also teens rummaging through their parents’ medicine cabinets, other family members and friends of patients, and the black market.

As a result, opioid overdose deaths trended up — sometimes involving opioids alone, other times involving drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan, Valium) typically prescribed to relieve anxiety. By 2015, opioid overdose deaths totaled more than 33,000 — close to two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths. The numbers have grown exponentially over the past three years.

What Can We Do?

Seeing the rise in opioid misuse and deaths, officials have cracked down on prescription painkillers. Law enforcement, for instance, now threaten doctors with incarceration and loss of their medical licenses if they prescribed the drugs unscrupulously. Ideally, doctors should still be able to get painkillers to patients who truly need them — after, for example, evaluating whether the patient has a history of drug addiction. But doctors, who weren’t conducting even such basic checks, are now being instructed to give more thought to their prescriptions.

Yet many people who lost access to painkillers are still addicted. So some who could no longer obtain prescribed painkillers turned to cheaper, more potent opioids bought off the street, such as heroin and Fentanyl. Not all painkiller users went this direction, and not all opioid users started with painkillers. But statistics suggest many did. A 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry found many painkiller users were moving on to heroin, and a 2015 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that people who are addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.

So other types of opioid overdoses, excluding painkillers, also rose. That doesn’t mean cracking down on painkillers was a mistake. It appears to have slowed the rise in painkiller deaths, and it may have prevented doctors from prescribing the drugs to new generations of people with drug use disorders. But the likely solution is to get opioid users into treatment. According to a 2016 report by the Surgeon General of the United States, just 10 percent of Americans with a drug use disorder obtain specialty treatment. The report found that the low rate was largely explained by a shortage of treatment options. Given the exorbitant cost of health care in America today, that is simply unacceptable. Federal and state officials have pushed for more treatment funding, including medication-assisted treatment like methadone and Buprenex.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.

NIH Study Yields Important Insight Into Addiction and Pain

From the web blog of Dr. Lora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse dated May 6, 2018.

We are on the verge of a new era in medicine, one that truly treats the patient as an individual and as a participant in his or her own care. New data-gathering and analytic capabilities are enabling the kinds of massive, long-term studies needed to investigate genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that contribute to disease. Fine-grained insight into prevention and treatment is creating a truly precision, individualized form of medicine, the payoffs of which are already striking in such areas as cancer treatment.

Recently, the NIH Precision Medicine Initiative launched All of Us, a massive study set to gather data from a million Americans across all demographic, regional, and health/illness spectrums. It will use electronic health records to track the health and medical care received by participants for a decade or more, incorporating surveys, blood and urine samples, and even data from fitness trackers or other wearable devices. For the time being, recruitment is limited to those 18 or older, but future stages will include children as well. The data will be open-access for researchers—and of course, anonymous.

The All of Us study will benefit addiction science in many ways, such as yielding valuable data on the influence of substance use and substance use disorders on various medical conditions. Information on use of alcohol, tobacco, opioids, and perhaps other substances is liable to be captured in the electronic health records used for this study, and surveys will also capture lifestyle-related information including substance use and misuse. Gathering these records and survey data over time will provide important insight into how common forms of substance use impact treatment outcomes for a range of common diseases. It could yield valuable insights into genetic risk factors for substance use and substance use disorders as well as predictors of responsiveness to treatment using different medications. Links between substance use, substance use disorders, and other psychiatric problems such as depression and suicide can also be explored with such a large sample.

Factors affecting pain and its treatment are also directly relevant to addiction, especially in the context of the current opioid crisis. All of Us could provide valuable data on demographic variations in pain prescribing, telling us what groups (ethnic, age, and gender) are being prescribed opioids as opposed to other medications or non-pharmacological treatments. It will also tell researchers how these treatments affect patients’ lives. This data set will help answer questions about the role opioid treatments may play in the transition from acute to chronic pain, for instance, and what role opioid treatment plays in development of opioid use disorders or other substance use disorders. It will also help us understand what other factors, such as mental health or other co-morbidity, affects trajectories associated with pain.

Like the ABCD study currently underway to study adolescent brain development, the All of Us study is deliberately open-ended. It is understood that rapidly advancing technology will give us the ability not only to answer new questions but also ask questions that might not even occur to researchers currently. Consequently, All of Us is being designed to allow the ingenuity of the research community to explore how this dataset can be utilized and design new ways of making it address their specific research questions.