person wearing gloves holding HIV test

Southern Indiana’s HIV Outbreak: A Lesson on the Importance of Incentivizing HIV Testing

By 2015, major news outlets were reporting on what the CDC was calling “one of the worst documented outbreaks of HIV among IV users in the past two decades.” Between 2011 and 2015 over 200 people in southern Indiana’s Scott County acquired HIV. The primary source of the spread was the sharing of needles to inject opioid drugs. While the outbreak has now been contained, there linger many lessons to be learned from the tragedy that struck this small rural county in southeast Indiana.

Some of those lessons are about the havoc being wreaked on much of rural America by opioid abuse. But the lessons I’m focusing on here are the dangers of disincentivizing HIV testing, especially among high-risk populations like injection drug users. Read More

Zombie Ideas: Safe Injection Department

Recently, people in Vermont have been talking about launching a Safe Injection Facility (SIF) to address drug harms arising with the opioid epidemic. With more deaths than ever, trying new approaches make sense — especially “new” approaches like SIFs that have two decades of solid international evidence of efficacy behind them.  Several cities are actively considering the same intervention.

One of the biggest barriers is uncertainty about how federal drug control authorities will react.  Although there are reasonable arguments that SIFs for public health do not violate the Controlled Substances Act, and the national opioid task force has broadly called for extraordinary action, there has been no explicit support from the Trump administration and no effort to carve out space in the law from Congress. Read More

The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part III: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Dismissed Harm Reduction Strategies

By Mason Marks

Drug overdose is a leading cause of death in Americans under 50. Opioids are responsible for most drug-related deaths killing an estimated 91 people each day. In Part I of this three-part series, I discuss how the President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis misinterpreted scientific studies and used data to support unfounded conclusions. In Part II I explore how the Commission dismissed medical interventions used successfully in the U.S. and abroad such as kratom and ibogaine. In this third part of the series, I explain how the Commission ignored increasingly proven harm reduction strategies such as drug checking and safe injection facilities (SIFs).

In its final report released November 1, 2017, the President’s Commission acknowledged that “synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl analogs, are by far the most problematic substances because they are emerging as a leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in the United States.” While speaking before the House Oversight Committee last month, the Governor of Maryland Larry Hogan stated that of the 1180 overdose deaths in his state this year, 850 (72%) were due to synthetic opioids. Street drugs are often contaminated with fentanyl and other synthetics. Dealers add them to heroin, and buyers may not be aware that they are consuming adulterated drugs. As a result, they can be caught off guard by their potency, which contributes to respiratory depression and death. Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are responsible for the sharpest rise in opioid-related mortality (see blue line in Fig. 1 below). Read More

Civil Commitment and the Opioid Epidemic: A Call for Research

By Scott Burris, JD

There is a lot of interest in civil commitment these days, as a possible tool to fight two big health problems. As we continue to watch the rates of opioid-related deaths climb, and in the wake of an unfunded emergency declaration by President Trump, some policymakers are looking to involuntarily commit overdose survivors for drug treatment. On the gun violence side, experts like Jeffrey Swanson have argued for applying gun-access restrictions that now cover people subject to long-term civil commitment to those subjected to short-term civil commitment.

With those kinds of ideas in the air, it is important to recognize how little modern data we have on commitment and its effects. In a recent article in the Washington Post discussing commitment for opioid treatment, Michael Stein and Paul Christopher emphasize how little we know. I entirely agree on the need for more research, and offer a couple of things to help.

The first is the Policy Surveillance Program’s LawAtlas dataset that maps civil commitment laws across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. If we’re going to examine these laws and their impact, this is the place to start. We also put out the call to anyone interested in studying this to work with us not only to update this data through 2017, but also to make sure we’re mining these laws and their characteristics for the right information in these circumstances — Are we asking the right questions? Read More

The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part II: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Ignored Promising Medical Treatments

By Mason Marks

Last year more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdose, which is “now the leading cause of death” in people under 50. Opioids kill an estimated 91 Americans each day and are responsible for most drug-related deaths in the US. This public health crisis requires solutions that are supported by science and reason instead of emotion and political ideology. In Part I of this three-part series, I discuss how the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis misinterpreted scientific studies and used data to support unfounded conclusions. In this second part of the series, I explore how the Opioid Commission ignored medical interventions that are used successfully in the U.S. and abroad. In Part III, I will discuss non-medical interventions such as drug checking and safe injection sites. The Commission’s failure to consider these options is likely driven by emotions such as fear and disgust rather than a careful review of scientific evidence.

Medical marijuana is currently accepted in 29 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. It is also permitted in at least 10 countries. However, the Opioid Commission outright rejected calls to consider the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for managing pain. Prior to the Commission’s first meeting, it solicited input from industry and members of the public on how to address the opioid crisis. In response, it received over 8,000 public comments. According to VICE News, which obtained the documents by submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, most comments were submitted by individuals urging the Commission to “consider medical marijuana as a solution to the opioid epidemic.” A spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a body of the Executive Branch that provides administrative support to the Opioid Commission, reports receiving “more than 7,800 public comments relating to marijuana.” Despite these comments, in its final report, the Commission dismissed the notion that marijuana should play a role in treating chronic pain and opioid addiction. Its report cited a recent study from the American Journal of Psychiatry, which concluded that marijuana use was associated with an increased risk of opioid abuse. However, this study relied on data that was collected over twelve years ago. One of its authors, Columbia Medical School Professor Mark Olfson, told CNN that if the data were collected today, they could yield different results.

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The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part I: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Misinterpreted Scientific Studies

By Mason Marks

The opioid crisis kills at least 91 Americans each day and has far-reaching social and economic consequences for us all. As lawmakers explore solutions to the problem, they should ensure that new regulations are based on scientific evidence and reason rather than emotion or political ideology. Though emotions should motivate the creation of policies and legislation, solutions to the opioid epidemic should be grounded in empirical observation rather than feelings of anger, fear, or disgust. Legislators must be unafraid to explore bold solutions to the crisis, and some measured risks should be taken. In this three-part series on evidence-backed solutions to the opioid crisis, I discuss proposals under consideration by the Trump Administration including recent recommendations of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. Though the Commission made some justifiable proposals, it misinterpreted the conclusions of scientific studies and failed to consider evidence-based solutions used in other countries. This first part of the series focuses on the misinterpretation of scientific data.

Last year more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdose, which is “now the leading cause of death” in people under 50. Opioids are responsible for most of these deaths. By comparison, the National Safety Council estimates about 40,000 Americans died in auto crashes last year, and the Centers for Disease Control reports that 38,000 people were killed by firearms. Unlike deaths due to cars and firearms, which have remained relatively stable over the past few years, opioid deaths have spiked abruptly. Between 2002 and 2015, U.S. opioid-related deaths nearly tripled (from about 12,000 deaths in 2002 to over 33,000 in 2015). Last year, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl contributed to over 20,000 deaths and accounted for the sharpest increase in opioid fatalities (See blue line in Fig. 1 below). Read More

Organs and Overdoses: The Numbers (Part I)

By Brad Segal

The surging opioid epidemic is a threat to the nation’s public health. This year the CDC reported that mortality from drug overdose reached an all-time high, with the annual death toll more than doubling since 2000. Yet in the backdrop of this epidemic, the country also faces ongoing shortages of a different sort–too few organs for transplantation. Every day, approximately 22 people die while waiting for an organ to become available. To some it is not a surprise–or at least not inconceivable–that the fastest-growing source of organ donors is being fueled by the national spike in drug overdoses. This first post will help delineate the scope and scale of the situation. My follow-up will discuss the ethical considerations and ramifications for public policy.

To start: the numbers. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) makes domestic transplant data publicly available online, which currently extends from 1994 to September 30th, 2016. Two decades ago, 29 organ donors died from a drug overdose.* In just the first nine months of this year, that number has climbed to 888 donors. Even with a quarter of the calendar year left to be counted, 2016 has already surpassed previous record set in 2015 (Figure 1).

figure-1
Figure 1

One might question whether this trend is an illusion–perhaps a rise in the incidence of donors who had overdosed reflects an increasing number of transplants. But the data suggest the opposite. Also plotted in Figure 1, the percentage of total organ donors who died from overdose (maroon diamonds, right-sided Y axis) has not remained constant–instead, the percentage has steadily increased. Two decades ago, overdose caused the deaths of 0.6% of all organ donors; this year, it is the cause of death among 12.0% of organ donors nationwide. The rising percentage means that not only are more victims of drug overdose donating organs, but that the pool of organ donors is increasingly composed of such individuals. Read More

New Federal Employee Drug Screening Guidelines to Include Opioid Testing

By Jonathan K. Larsen, JD, MPP

There is no denying that the United States is experiencing an opioid overdose epidemic. Drug overdose deaths generally in the United States have been associated, at least in part, with increasing mortality rates among white non-Hispanics, which is counter to trends in other wealthy nations. The Urban Institute’s Laudan Aron recently posted about the underlying causes of our current epidemic, paying special attention to aggressive marketing of painkillers, the related spike in opioid prescriptions, and the closely correlated increase in opioid abuse. The issue has even made it into the current Presidential campaign, however briefly. President Obama has sought increased funding to address the issue, as well as a focused private, state, and local effort to tackle prescription drug abuse. While opioid abuse has been on the rise, it is not typically part of employee drug testing, when employers choose or are required to test. This may be changing.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the federal agency responsible for drug testing standards for federal agencies, is poised to release drug screening guidelines (see page 4 (28104 in the Federal Register) that would expand drug screening for opioid abuse to federal employees, and could influence employee drug testing policies across the nation. The US Department of Defense has been testing for hydrocodone and benzodiazepines (used to treat anxiety and seizures among other things) since May 1, 2012. SAMHSA cites sobering statistics about opioid-related deaths now outnumbering deaths from illicit drugs, as it prepares to test for oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone, all classified as Schedule II drugs, or drugs with high risk of abuse, by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The proposed guidelines were released May 15, 2015, so the final rules should be coming soon. Read More

Overdose Update: Celebrity Edition

By Scott Burris

You’ve probably heard about the good news/bad news experience of Stephanie Bongiovi, daughter of rocker Jon Bon Jovi. A college student, she ODed on heroin, but help was summoned and she’s going to be fine. The (temporary) bad news for her (and longer term for others in her plight) is that she and a companion were arrested IN SPITE of a recent New York Good Samaritan 911 law passed explicitly to encourage people to call for help.

There are some technicalities and prerequisites, so if you want to see the law it’s available on LawAtlas. But if she or her companion sought help, and absent a hyper-technical reading of the statute (it literally does not protect a victim unable to seek help), the charges should never have been filed and should be dropped. The problem for the rest of us is that these laws only work if people at an OD scene know about them and trust them. High profile arrests like this are — and for once I think there might be some truth to this claim — sending a message not to seek help.

Meanwhile, Leo Beletsky, Jody Rich and Alex Walley have a fine little piece in JAMA that thoroughly catalogues the removable barriers to OD prevention. The table alone is worth thousands of words, which is nice because JAMA’s editors were pretty tight on the word limit despite the importance of the topic.