Opioid drug abuse is reaching epidemic proportions, with thousands of deaths each year along with many more lives and families ruined—just ask any healthcare expert, public health researcher, politician or law enforcement official.
On heroin and other illicit drug use, I go way back to my teenage days in the 1960s when I used to go to parties on Siesta Key in my hometown of Sarasota, Fla., and witness kids not much older than me inject themselves or inhale just about anything that would get them high.
I never will forget both how stupid I thought those kids were and how scary it was for me to witness their zombie-like reactions afterward.
I don't exactly know why I—an athlete on multiple sports teams—attended these parties. It probably was to meet girls, drink a few beers, hang out with other people my age and listen to the stories of veterans coming back home from Vietnam. I should say not all parties I attended had illegal drugs, but there were a few memorable ones.
Fast forward to 2016. Nowadays, I am told, heroin and other drug abuse can start with honest prescriptions for OxyContin, morphine, codeine or other pain medications. Some did it for recreational use. Remember when Rush Limbaugh got into trouble for buying mass quantities of OxyContin?
I am not writing this simply to retell a few childhood stories. There is a more serious reason. It has to do with thousands of people who are needlessly dying each year.
It appears people—even politicians on the presidential campaign trail—are starting to talk about the plain facts of opioid abuse.
For example, every 12 minutes someone dies of drug abuse. America uses 80% of world's opioids, but has only 5% of the world's population.
More than 2 million people in the U.S. have either abused or were dependent on prescription opioid painkillers in 2013, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Wednesday, the Greater Detroit Area Health Council and the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority will put on a summit, “Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Overdose Summit: Understanding and Collaborating to Affect Change.”
Kate Kohn-Parrott, CEO of GDHAC, said everyone is invited, including business leaders, medical and behavioral health professionals, hospital and insurance executives, clergy and law enforcement.
“We are doing this is because opioid abuse is such a huge issue,” Kohn-Parrott said. “It is a problem for employers because they pay medical bills and the costs for drugs employees may or may not need. Employees are affected at jobs. It is a drain on the health care system with people using ERs because of drug overdoses.”
Kohn-Parrott talked for about 10 minutes about the increasing danger to people and society from drug abuse.
“We can address the need for treatment, but how do we deal with the root causes in society that drives this?” she said. “The CDC said 1 million people in the U.S. are abusing drugs. We have mothers who have their babies taken away. We are not doing anything to treat the mother and instead electing to imprison them instead of treating them.”
Kohn-Parrott said drug abuse can affect all income levels, but it is especially severe in low-income communities.
“We know when parents are drug abusers, their kids sometimes grow up to be drug abusers,” she said.
Late last month, President Barack Obama proposed $1.1 billion in new funding under his fiscal 2017 budget to address the prescription opioid abuse and heroin use epidemic.
Most of the funds will go to states through HHS. It will be used primarily to administer treatment and recovery programs, including increased access to the expensive overdose-reversal drug naloxone.
I heard someone say on NPR this week that state prescription licensing laws could need to be changed. For example, physician assistants and nurse practitioners often can prescribe OxyContin and other pain drugs, but they can't prescribe treatment drugs like naloxone that would allow someone to break their habit.
Two recent studies in Michigan also have addressed the opioid epidemic.
Last December, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Healthcare Research & Transformation released a study that shows uncoordinated opioid prescriptions are putting many people at increased risk for accidental overdose.
Uncoordinated use means that some patients receive numerous prescriptions from separate prescribers that often results in opioid addiction and opioid dependence, which public health officials and doctors sometimes call opioid use disorder.
The study found that accidental overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription drugs and heroin) has increased six times in Michigan between 1999 and 2013 (from 81 to 519 deaths).
More than 60 percent of patients with uncoordinated opioid prescriptions were diagnosed with cancer, trauma or palliative care in 2013, the study found.
Post-surgical care is a key area that physicians are addressing in Michigan, an anesthesiologist source told me. “Oxycodone and OxyContin are way overprescribed after surgeries,” he said.
Kohn-Parrott, who is recovering from a broken back, recalls the pain she underwent in the months after her surgery. She was prescribed many types of pain medications. “I couldn't wait to get off of them because I couldn't think straight,” she said.
Another recent study by the University of Michigan Health System and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System also calls for caution in prescriptions for opioids.
The UM-VA study reviewed 221 veterans who died from accidental opioid painkiller overdoses, and an equal number of veterans who were matched to be exactly alike in many ways and took opioids for chronic pain, but did not overdose.
The average dose that the overdose victims had been prescribed was far higher than what the comparison patients had received. On average, those who overdosed had been given a prescription higher than 71 percent of those who didn't.
I hope the meeting comes up with better ways to control prescribed opioid use and get help to people who are on that downward drug slope. Drug abuse is a true public health menace that will kill faster than overeating and lack of exercise, two other pet peeves of mine. Don't get me started on those problems.