Me Included

I recently took the time to read President Obama’s report Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis (2011), published on the monthly blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. (Sept. 14, 2016) According to the president’s report, prescription drug abuse is the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem. While there has been a marked decrease in the use of such illegal drugs as cocaine, data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) show that nearly one-third of people aged 12 and older who used drugs for the first time in 2009 began by using a prescription drug non-medically. The survey found that over 70 percent of people who abused prescription pain relievers got them from friends or relatives, me included.

I started taking opioid pain medication for severe low back pain in 2004. The pain became debilitating, and I was approved for Social Security Disability Income in 2009. Being an addict and an alcoholic, I should have realized that one pill was too many and a hundred was not enough. At one point, I was seeing three different doctors and going to several different pharmacies in order to avoid suspicion. I could not keep up with my cravings. When I could no longer get enough pain meds through doctors and  ERs, I started stealing medication from everyone in my family. I realized just the other day that I have been taking medication from loved ones since 1984 when I started helping myself to my mother-in-law’s Tylenol with Codeine. Although there have been periods where I was able to stop taking opiates, it started all over again about a year before my father died. Following a family intervention, I went to a rehab center for 21 days. I relapsed ten months after I left the rehab. I managed to get clean again until August 20 of this year when I stole oxycodone tablets from my mother. It appears I may have done irreparable damage to my relationship with her. Ironically, that was my greatest fear.

Although a number of classes of prescription drugs are currently being abused, the president’s 2011 action plan primarily focuses on the growing and often deadly problem of prescription opioid abuse. The number of prescriptions filled for opioid pain relievers (some of the most powerful medications available) has increased dramatically in recent years. From 1997 to 2007, the milligram-per-person use of prescription opioids in the U.S. increased from 74 milligrams to 369 milligrams, which amounts to 402 percent. In 2000, retail pharmacies dispensed 174 million prescriptions for opioids. By 2009, 257 million prescriptions were dispensed, which is an increase of 48 percent. Opiate overdoses, once almost always due to heroin use, are now increasingly due to the abuse of prescription painkillers.

A crucial first step in tackling the problem of prescription drug abuse is to raise awareness through the education of parents, youth, patients, and healthcare providers. Although there have been great strides in raising awareness about the dangers of using illegal drugs, many people are still not aware that the misuse or abuse of prescription drugs can be as dangerous as the use of illegal drugs, leading to addiction and even death. In addition, prescribers and dispensers, including physicians, dentists, and pharmacists, all have a role to play in reducing prescription drug misuse and abuse. Most receive little training on the importance of appropriate prescribing and dispensing of opioids to prevent adverse effects, diversion, and addiction.

Outside of specialty addiction treatment programs, most healthcare providers receive minimal training in how to recognize substance abuse in their patients. Most medical, dental, pharmacy, and other health professional schools do not provide in-depth training on substance abuse; often, substance abuse education is limited to classroom or clinical electives. Moreover, students in these schools only receive limited training on treating pain. A national survey of medical residency programs in 2000 found that, of the programs studied, only 56 percent required substance use disorder training, and the number of curricular hours in the required programs varied between 3 to 12 hours. A 2008 follow-up survey found that some progress has been made to improve medical school, residency, and post-residency substance abuse education; however, efforts have not been uniformly applied in all residency programs or medical schools.

Educating prescribers on substance abuse is critically important, because even brief interventions by primary care providers have proven effective in reducing or eliminating substance abuse in people who abuse drugs but are not yet addicted to them. In addition, educating healthcare providers about prescription drug abuse will promote awareness of this growing problem among prescribers, so they will not over-prescribe the medication necessary to treat minor conditions. This, in turn, will reduce the amount of unused medication sitting in medicine cabinets in homes across the country.

The president’s report indicates that all of this will take tracking and monitoring. Forty-three states have authorized prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs). PDMPs aim to detect and prevent the diversion and abuse of prescription drugs at the retail level, where no other automated information collection system exists, and to allow for the collection and analysis of prescription data more efficiently than states without such a program can accomplish. However, only 35 states have operational PDMPs. These programs are established by state legislation, and are paid for by a combination of state and Federal funds. PDMPs track controlled substances prescribed by authorized practitioners and dispensed by pharmacies. PDMPs can and should serve a multitude of functions, including assisting in patient care, providing early warning of drug abuse epidemics (especially when combined with other data), evaluating interventions, and investigating drug diversion and insurance fraud.

In summary, the president’s report states that research and medicine have provided a vast array of medications to cure disease, ease suffering and pain, improve the quality of life, and save lives. This is no more evident than in the field of pain management. As with many new scientific discoveries and new uses for existing compounds, the potential for diversion, abuse, morbidity, and mortality are significant. Prescription drug misuse and abuse is a major public health and public safety crisis. As a nation, we must take urgent action to ensure the appropriate balance between the benefits these medications offer in improving lives and the risks they pose. No one agency, system, or profession is solely responsible for this undertaking. We must address this issue as partners in public health and public safety. Therefore, ONDCP will convene a Federal Council on Prescription Drug Abuse, comprised of Federal agencies, to coordinate implementation of this prescription drug abuse prevention plan and will engage private parties as necessary to reach the goals established by the plan.

Substance Abuse Concerns: Heroin and Prescription Drug Use on the Rise Among Teens

Curriculum Review,  Jan. 2016, Vol. 55 Issue 5, p6-7. 2p.

It seems as though some teenagers have always dabbled in drugs, but with increasing access to dangerous prescription opioids and cheap heroin, the problem is especially acute. For some students, drug experimentation will lead to addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), after marijuana and alcohol, prescription and over-the-counter drugs are the most commonly abused drugs for Americans aged 14 years and older. In 2012, nearly 20 percent of American 12th graders said they had abused prescription pills at some point in their lives.

NIDA reports that heroin use has been rising since 2007. Though use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders is at less than one percent, NIDA emphasizes that heroin use is reported as the biggest drug abuse issue in rural and urban areas. The rate of teens using heroin soared by 80 percent between 1999 and 2009. Twenty-three percent of those who try heroin will become addicted. The New York Times collected statistics about the heroin epidemic that has garnering attention from concerned citizens, politicians, and the media. There has been a 39% increase in heroin related deaths from 2012 to 2013. Ninety percent of first-time users are white. Increasing numbers of first-time users are middle or upper class. Seventy-five percent of heroin users used prescription painkillers before using heroin, with 40 percent of those individuals abusing opioid painkillers.

NIDA has found that some teenagers start taking heroin because it is much cheaper than prescription pills. Serious health problems involved with heroin include infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis, collapsed veins and infection of the heart lining and valves, death by overdose, and liver and kidney disease. Signs that a teen could be addicted to heroin include acting slow and sedated, then intensely hyperactive, extreme sleepiness, cold and clammy skin, runny nose, pin-sized pupils, disinterest in extracurricular activities and academics, inattention to cleanliness, nausea, unexplained changes in friends, hangouts, and hobbies, weight loss, and an inability to pay attention or problem solve.

Drug overdoses cause more deaths every day than car accidents. Forty-four people per day die of opioid medication overdose. Approximately 1,600 teens begin abusing prescription drugs each day. Children and teens age 1 2 to 1 7 abuse prescription pills more than ecstasy, heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamines combined. Twenty percent of teens who abuse prescription pills did so before they turned 14. These statistics are obviously very alarming.

Life Skills Training Shields Teens From Prescription Opioid Misuse

NIDA Notes, December 3, 2015, By Eric Sarlin, M.Ed., M.A., NIDA Notes Contributing Writer, National Institute on Drug Abuse

The Life Skills Training (LST) prevention intervention, delivered in 7th grade classrooms, helps children avoid misusing prescription opioids throughout their teen years, NIDA-supported researchers report. Coupling LST with the Strengthening Families Program: for Parents and Youth 10–14 (SFP) enhances this protection. Dr. D. Max Crowley from Duke University, with colleagues from Pennsylvania State University, evaluated the impacts of LST and two other school-based interventions, All Stars (AS) and Project Alert (PA), on teens’ prescription opioid misuse. The researchers drew the data for the evaluation from a recent trial of the PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience (PROSPER) prevention program. PROSPER is led jointly by Richard Spoth at Iowa State University and Mark Greenberg at Penn State University, with research funding from NIDA.

The new evaluation also disclosed that communities that implemented LST in the PROSPER trial more than recouped its cost in reduced health, social, and other expenditures related to teen prescription opioid misuse. The researchers recommend that communities consider implementing LST plus SFP to help control the ongoing epidemic of youth prescription opioid misuse. LST was the only intervention of the three tested that was effective by itself, and it was most effective when the interventions were combined with SFP.

Lessons That Stick

In the PROSPER trial, 14 communities in Iowa and Pennsylvania each selected the intervention they felt best fit their resources and their youth’ risk profile for drug use and other unhealthy and delinquent behaviors. The interventions are all “universal,” meaning that they are delivered to all children, not just those who are judged to have elevated risk for problems.

All the interventions involve multiple sessions of classroom instruction addressing the social and psychological factors that lead to experimentation with drugs and other undesirable behaviors. In addition, through games, discussion, role-playing, and other exercises, students practice refusing drugs, communicating with peers and adults, making choices in problem situations, and confronting peer pressure. The programs’ curricula focus on helping students to develop practical skills they can apply to resist drug use. Materials such as worksheets, online content, posters, and videos augment all three programs.

Each intervention was delivered to all 7th graders in the schools of the PROSPER communities that selected it. Most of the children and their families also received the SFP program during the prior year, when the children were in 6th grade. In SFP, families gather together to watch videos providing advice and instruction toward enhancing family relationships and communication, fostering parenting skills, improving academic performance, and preventing risky behaviors. Group leaders then conduct follow-up lessons and practice exercises.

Dr. Crowley and colleagues previously reported that smaller percentages of children from the 14 PROSPER communities reported illicit drug use and problematic alcohol use in annual follow-up visits conducted through 11th grade, compared to children from 14 matched control communities that did not use any evidence-based prevention program. As well, fewer PROSPER children reported marijuana use in 12th grade.

Win-Win

Dr. Crowley and colleagues determined that LST’s impact on teens’ prescription opioid misuse made it a good financial, as well as health, investment for PROSPER communities. They reached this conclusion by:

  • Estimating the cost to prevent each case of prescription opioid misuse (by dividing the total cost of LST materials, training, etc., by the number of cases prevented).
  • Comparing that number to $7,500, which they estimated, based on previously established figures, is the average expenditure incurred by communities for each single case of teen prescription opioid misuse.

These calculations indicated that PROSPER communities that implemented LST laid out $613 and saved $6,887 for each child that the program prevented from misusing prescription opioids. The corresponding estimates for LST plus SFP indicated expenditures of $3,959 and savings of $3,541 per case averted. Even though communities saved less per benefited child with LST alone, the researchers note, their health benefits were greater and their total savings may have been greater with LST plus SFP, because more cases were prevented.

Dr. Crowley says, “This work illustrates that not only can existing universal prevention programs effectively prevent prescription drug misuse, they can also do so in a cost-effective manner. Our research demonstrates the unique opportunities to combine prevention across school and family settings to augment the larger prevention impact.”

How Heroin Kills

The following information appeared in The Sunday Item, April 3, 2016, Sunbury, Pennsylvania.

Teresa Stoker gently pulls a sterling silver necklace from beneath the neck of her gray sweatshirt and holds it out beyond her chin. Ashes of 27-year-old Mark Stoker are piled inside a tiny cylinder, strung next to an imprint of her youngest son’s right thumbprint. His two siblings keep their brother’s ashes in keepsake key chains. Their mother has one of those, too. Mark died February 4, 2016 of a heroin overdose inside a New Columbia motel – one of 13 tri-county residents dead or suspected to have died of a drug overdose in 2016, according to coroners from Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties.

Mark was alone when motel staff found him after he failed to check out of his room. He was alone the day before, overdosed again in heroin and dumped by an acquaintance in the parking lot of a Burger King in Williamsport, PA, rain pouring onto his unconscious body, until passersby came to his aid and dialed 9-1-1.

He was supposed to be at his mother’s home in Shamokin Dam that day. They were supposed to have dinner and watch TV together. That had been the routine for days. He had stayed off heroin for six months, but he was growing irritable. His suboxone prescription was running short. He didn’t have consistent rides to counseling. He tried to make it work. He sliced the medicated film in half. As his supply dwindled, he sliced it in fours.

When Teresa pulled into her driveway on February 3rd, she could see through the blinds hung in the front window. “I knew he wasn’t in there,” she says.

Two months after his death, Mark’s family is left to reconcile love and pain, guilt and forgiveness – within themselves and within their own relationships fractured by a loved one’s fatal drug addiction. “He was the link that brought us together, and he was the one that pulled us apart,” says his sister and eldest sibling, Desiree. “He wasn’t long for this world,” adds Teresa. “He fought this to the very end,” says his brother Matt. “Mark didn’t really have a choice.”

The Stoker kids’ father died early in their lives. Mark was only 2 years old. Matt wonders if it was the impetus for mental health issues Mark would develop in life, particularly depression. Anxiety and depression are often evident in the psyche of a drug addict, according to the National Institute on Drug Awareness. “Addiction is a mental health issue,” says Dr. Rachael Levine, Pennsylvania’s physician general, who is among the officials at the forefront in addressing the Keystone State’s heroin and opioid addiction crisis. “It is not a moral failing.”

Mark sought help, and sometimes he sought it himself. He was no stranger to rehab. He’d been in and out of treatment several times, both in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. His family stood by his side the best they could, the only way they knew how. They encouraged him to lead a clean life, showed pride when he landed new jobs, sat bedside when he was hospitalized for an overdose. “Sometimes I look back and think we were fooling ourselves,” Matt says.

Matt and Desiree were the academics in the family. The former is enrolled in the physician assistant program at Pennsylvania College of Technology, and the latter is a registered nurse at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, PA. Mark was no fool, either. His mind was for mechanics. He once rebuilt his own motorcycle after he wrecked it. Then he sold it and traded up for a better ride. His career path was in electrical work. On one job, he was hanging by a harness from a helicopter 200 feet above the ground repairing high-voltage lines. His family describes him as witty and charming, kind and sensitive, resilient and rebellious.

A quick learner, fearless in life’s pursuit, Mark hit dirt bike jumps taller than himself before he was a teen. He took quickly to Black Diamond slopes when he began to ski and bagged an eight-point buck on his first hunt. He was just 10 when he picked up on how to drive a stick shift. Accidents along the way created a need for pain relief. It’s very important to note that the American Society of Addiction Medicine found 4 in 5 new heroin users started by abusing prescription painkillers. Count Mark among the 80 percent. According to Mark’s mother, he was given pain meds at 14 when he had a wisdom tooth extracted. He took painkillers at 16 after having his gallbladder removed. Again, he took narcotic pain medication at 18 after being involved in a motorcycle accident.

Mark was 23 in 2012 when he developed painful kidney stones. His behavior suddenly changed. He became withdrawn, choosing to spend more time than normal alone in his bedroom. He was in legitimate need of relief from pain, but looking back, this is when his family says they first recognized signs of addiction. He’d been abusing oxycodone he was getting from three separate doctors. Maybe he needed relief the next summer when he stole Vicodin from his mother’s medicine cabinet.

It was September of that same year when Mark’s family first saw him experience a heroin overdose. He had borrowed his sister’s car. She found him slumped over in the driver’s seat as the engine idled – eyes glazed, sweat pooled in a cup holder. Mark’s sister dialed some of his recent calls on his cell phone. Someone told her, “He might be doing heroin.” She flipped out. The pock marks on the back of Mark’s hands weren’t bug bites as she thought on first glance. They were injection sites.

There would be more overdoses for Mark between September 2013 and the night he died in February 2016. Once his mother got a call from a Virginia state trooper. Mark overdosed in a hotel room while he was out of state on a job. Another time he was dumped at the doors of Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg, PA, “dead on arrival,” as Teresa says. Attempts at recovery followed. Twenty-eight days at a Virginia facility didn’t take. The Stokers were more hopeful after a 28-day stay at Father Martin’s Ashley in Maryland, but again it didn’t help. He walked out of a rehab in White Deer, PA one week after he checked himself in.

Jobs, friendships, girlfriends – all lost by Mark to addiction, an addiction that strained an already complicated relationship, and ultimately led to his loss of parental rights to his daughter. He spoke often about the little girl, wrote about her in his journal. Teresa holds dear the few photographs she has of the two together.

A study on addiction by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania determined only 1 in 8 Pennsylvanians can afford treatment services. Geisinger Health System’s latest needs assessment says lack of insurance, cost of care, and transportation are barriers to treatment. More importantly, there simply aren’t enough providers to meet demand.

Mark had health insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace. His mother says it didn’t cover the $150 monthly cost for suboxone, or the $100 cost per session for addictions counseling. His mother was in counseling herself, and with Mark out of work, she was covering all the bills. “We all knew he should be on [suboxone]…but we couldn’t afford it,” Teresa says.

And so the afternoon of February 4th, one day after Mark’s life was saved after he was found in the parking lot of the fast-food restaurant, came a familiar phone call to Teresa. One the whole family expected and equally feared. It was the state police. They didn’t tell her, but she knew. This time, Mark was dead.

“Change is Possible”

In a first in Pennsylvania on March 9, 2016, the Upper Darby Township Police Department in Delaware County announced it will connect residents battling with addiction to a treatment center. According to Michael Chitwood, Police Superintendent, “the police station will be transformed into a safe haven for individuals caught up in addiction. Police officers are now taking a greater role in rehabilitation efforts, offering assistance to residents struggling with any type of substance abuse. People can come in, request help, and we will reach out and seek that help for them. Period.”

The program, known as Change Is Possible, was created to combat the heroin epidemic that is sweeping our nation. Referral to the treatment facility will assist individuals to determine what coverage their private health insurance or Medicaid provides. If someone is lacking health insurance, the treatment center will seek funding through county and state programs already available. Individuals seeking help can stop by the police station on weekdays between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. A police officer will perform a background check and contact the treatment facility.

“The number one war in America right now is drug addiction,” emphasized Mayor Thomas Micozzie. “It’s killing the fiber of our communities. It’s not only our youth – it’s the middle-aged accountant, it’s the housewife who suddenly had a dental problem and got hooked on opioids.” “This is about saving lives,” added Superintendent Chitwood. “If we can save a life, we’ve accomplished something.”

Heroin is an opioid drug that is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant. Heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance, known as black tar heroin. Prescription opioid pain medications such as Oxycontin and Vicodin can have effects similar to heroin when taken in doses or in ways other than prescribed, and they are currently among the most commonly abused drugs in the United States. Research now suggests that abuse of these drugs may open the door to heroin abuse. Nearly half of young people who inject heroin surveyed in three recent studies reported abusing prescription opioids before starting to use heroin. Some individuals reported taking up heroin because it is cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription opioids.

When it enters the brain, heroin is converted back into morphine, which binds to molecules on cells known as opioid receptors. These receptors are located in many areas of the brain (and in the body), especially those involved in the perception of pain and in reward. Opioid receptors are also located in the brain stem, which controls automatic processes critical for life, such as blood pressure, arousal, and respiration. Heroin overdoses frequently involve a suppression of breathing. This can affect the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can have short and long-term psychological and neurological effects, including coma and permanent brain damage.