The War on Drugs, the War on
Doctors, and the Pain Crisis in America -
| by Alexander
DeLuca, M.D., June 4, 2004. - Submitted to Professor Michael
Sparer, Ph.D., Health Care Policy, Mailman School of Public Health,
Columbia University, New York City
Originally posted: June 5, 2004. Last revisions: 2011-06-14
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% Total Registrants
Actions Against MDs:
Arrests of MDs:
The table is presented without caption or discussion except what is contained in paragraph four:
Since FY 1999 the DEA registrant population has continually increased reaching almost 1 million doctors (as of June 30, 2003). During this same time, DEA has pursued sanctions on less than one tenth of one percent of the registered doctors..." [DEA, 2003]
We are talking about risk
here and the appropriate statistic is a rate. The Numbers in
the table above can correctly be used as numerators to compute this
statistic, however, Total registrants is not the
appropriate denominator because the denominator used must include only
physicians who could possibly come to DEA attention. I call this
misleading use of an incorrectly computed rate Denominator
Having a DEA license is necessary but not sufficient to put a physician at risk of investigation, loss of license and arrest. The other requirement for being a physician-at-risk, thereby earning a rightful place in the denominator, is prescribing controlled substances in regimens that DEA finds questionable, and this number is far, far smaller. It should be noted in this regard, that DEA licensure is commonly required for hospital employment or privileges regardless of whether a physician ever intends to prescribe controlled substances or even possesses the special prescription pad necessary to do so.
Exactly how much smaller is the appropriate denominator? The answer is open to interpretation and affected by assumptions; only the DEA could provide the precise number and they do not publish this datum. For example, using the full year's numbers from the same 2002 data set, 622 physicians were investigated, charges were brought against 586, and in 426 cases medical licenses were revoked "for cause." [Hochman, 2003] Dr. Hochman, a pain specialist and the Executive Director of the National Foundation of the Treatment of Pain, estimates that the number of physicians practicing "chronic opioid therapy" was 5000 in 2002. This estimate is somewhat close to the "3000 pain specialists" estimated by Eric Chevlen. [Chevlen, 2001] If we use Hochman's "5000 doctors practicing chronic opioid therapy" number to compute the rate statistic (and assuming that all in the numerator are also members of the denominator): 622/5000 = 0.1244 = a DEA investigation-or-action rate of 12.44 percent, orders of magnitude higher than the incorrectly computed DEA rate statistic of "less than one tenth of one percent of the registered doctors." The comparable rate using Chevlen's "3000 pain specialists in the U.S." is 20.73 percent of at-risk physicians had DEA action initiated against them in 2002.
I do not know exactly how either Hochman or Chevlen arrived at that their estimates. If reasonably derived, either estimate could be a statistically appropriate denominator to compute a rate statistic. On the other hand, the DEA's choice for the denominator is most certainly wrong. I am trying here to give a sense of how important it is to be explicit about one's assumptions in these matters and of how difficult it is, given the available DEA data, to construct even simple rates that are more enlightening than misleading. Regardless of how the rate statistic is computed, a "chilling effect," as operationally defined in this paper, is not a solely a function of risk as defined by an appropriate rate; severity of risk, highly publicized trials of prominent physicians, and the perceived rationality or irrationality of the DEA criteria used to set the "bounds of accepted medical practice" also play a significant role in how physicians react to the fear of litigation.
Finally, as Dr. William Hurwitz pointed out in a December 7, 2003 message to the PAIN_CHEM_DEP listServ, the DEA presents statistics relating only to their actions against doctors and not the consequent distortion of medical practice that is the 'chilling effect' they are claiming to examine. "The same purportedly low rate of disciplinary action cannot logically serve as an index of both cause and effect. How can one determine if there has been a chilling effect without looking at what doctors really do? There has been no attempt by the DEA to do so." [Hurwitz, 2003] I call this misleading confusion of outcome for index event, "Outcome Obfuscation." (See Appendix Two)
One can only conclude that "The Myth of the Chilling Effect" DEA press release is grossly and purposefully misleading, and statistically childish.Before we turn to a consideration of the nature and relative severity of the "drug problem" which is the justification for the regulation of opioid analgesic medications by federal law enforcement, let me point out that the above examples of the triumph of big lies and bullies over medical and social rationalism are more than just amusing historical anecdotes. It is beyond the scope of this paper to thoroughly consider the "Findings of Congress" that are written into the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1998 [Drug-free Workplace Act, 1998] and interested readers are referred to "A critical assessment of the impact of drug testing programs on the American workplace." [DeLuca, 2002] Let it suffice to say here the major "Finding," that "employees who use and abuse addictive drugs and alcohol increase costs for business" was publicly debunked by research sponsored by the governments' own National Institute of Drug Abuse and published in 1994 in a book entitled "Under the Influence? Drugs and the American Workforce" by Normand et. al. [Normand et. al., 1994] Regarding the minor "Finding" that "health benefit utilization is 300 percent higher among drug users" these same authors found studies on this question equivocal at best.
It is particularly dismaying to find this same old tired litany of discredited information written, without attribution, directly into major U.S. drug policy legislation.
America does have a large
substance-related public health problem, but it is very difficult to
make a serious case that the substances we should be most concerned
about are the illicit drugs and licit prescription controlled
substances. Figure 1 compares deaths related to the "recreational" use
of tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs, and cannabis to deaths related to
fatal adverse drug reactions (ADRs) which are captioned "PharmCo." Note
that deaths related to illicit drugs are an order of magnitude lower
than deaths related to the legal recreational substances tobacco and
alcohol. Note also that deaths related to cannabis use are zero.
Figure 1 [From: http://bbsnews.net/drug-deaths.html]
America's problem with ADRs is truly startling in that it is a far more common cause of morbidity and mortality than illicit drugs and occurs under direct medical auspices. Lazarou et. al., in their 1998 meta-analysis of prospective studies, published in JAMA, calculated the overall incidence of serious ADRs to be 6.7 percent, and fatal ADRs to be 0.32 percent, of hospitalized patients in the U.S. [Lazarou et. al, 1998] Focusing on analgesic medication, in 2000 approximately 16,000 Americans died from direct complications of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like Motrin and Naprosyn). In that year only some 200 died from OxyContin, usually in combination with alcohol or other drug. [Chevlen, 2001]
Figure 2 was composed from
National Household Survey data, obtained from the Office of National
Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), to show drug use trends since 1979. While
the government is correct that "since 1979 current drug use is down
substantially," the data also clearly show that the percentage of
Americans who used illicit drugs in the past month is essentially
unchanged since 1988.
Figure 2 [Scherlen & Robinson, 2003]
While the war on drugs / war on doctors has not resulted in decreased regular drug use, it is making that use increasingly deadly. The goal of minimizing the harm to addicts, frequently proclaimed by the ONDCP, appears to be a dismal failure. These figures lend support to the argument of the drug reformers that drug prohibition does significantly more harm than good.
Figure 3 shows that over the same period of time that current drug use is essentially unchanged, deaths related to illicit drug use climbed continuously and dramatically. This is the opposite of a sane public health policy of harm reduction: our national policy creates conditions under which more and more drug users get sick and die.
Figure 3 [Scherlen & Robinson, 2003]
On October 2, 2003, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) issued a statement entitled, "Doctors say U.S. drug policy forces pain patients to extreme measures, turns doctors into criminals." [Serkes, 2003] In a country where there is no shortage of physicians qualified to prescribe opiate analgesics, which are relatively safer than alternative classes of medications commonly used in the treatment of chronic pain (antidepressants, NSAIDs, and anticonvulsants), they noted that the 48 million odd people suffering from chronic pain in the U.S. were having difficulty finding doctors to treat them, and that this was the result of a tragically misguided, politically driven national drug policy, defacto law enforcement regulation of medical practice, and overzealous federal prosecutors. "The 'war on drugs' has turned into a war on doctors and [on] the legal drugs they prescribe and the suffering patients who need the drugs to attempt anything approaching a normal life," said Kathryn Serkes, public affairs counsel for the AAPS. Referring to an review of thirty recent cases of prosecutions against physicians [AAPS, 2004] involving physician loss of livelihood, loss of license, and imprisonment and the abandonment of literally thousands of their patients, Serkes issued this stark and frightening statement to AAPS members:
If you're thinking about getting into pain management using opioids as appropriate -- DON'T. Forget what you learned in medical school -- drug agents now set medical standards. [Serkes, 2003]
Magnitude and Nature of the Problem
How big a problem is pain in America? Stewart et. al., in a 2003 cross-sectional study using 2001 - 2002 data from the American Productivity Audit on 28,902 working adults, revealed that thirteen percent experienced a loss in productive time during a 2-week period due to a common pain condition. (Most, 76.6 percent, of the lost productive time was explained by reduced performance while at work and not work absence). Lost productive time was estimated to cost $61.2 billion per year. They concluded that pain "is an inordinately common and disabling condition in the US workforce..." [Stewart et. al, 2003]
Reports and statements from government, regulatory and academic bodies attesting to a massive problem of untreated and undertreated pain abound. In 2004 Robert Meyer, Director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in testimony to the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources reminded legislators of a Consensus Statement from the National Cancer Institute Workshop on Cancer Pain over a decade earlier (1990) which indicated that the "undertreatment of pain... is a serious and neglected public health problem." [Meyer, 2004] The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported in 1992 that, "half of all patients given conventional therapy for their pain...do not get adequate relief." [Carr, 1992] In 1999 the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) issued a press release noting that unrelieved pain had huge physical and psychological effects on patients and increased health care costs. JCAHO at that time officially declared pain to be the "fifth vital sign," henceforth regarding the evaluation of pain a routine requirement of proper patient care as important and basic as the assessment and management of temperature, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and pulse rate. [JCAHO, 1999]
Roadblocks to Relief
What is the impact of chronic pain on quality of life? Are there barriers and stigma related to pain treatment and especially to mainstay opioid medications? Most importantly, do those afflicted with chronic pain in fact have their pain under control? Does treatment goes far enough particularly in more difficult cases where first line therapies have failed? These questions about the effect of chronic pain on individual sufferers and about their experiences seeking relief were investigated in a study commissioned by the American Pain Society (APS), the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM) and Janssen Pharmaceutical and conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide, which was published in 1999 as, "Chronic Pain in America: Roadblocks to Relief." [Roper Starch Worldwide, 1999] Of a mail panel of over 500,000 households representative of all households in the U.S., a total of 35,000 screening questionnaires were sent to a random cross-section and 805 individuals with moderate to severe non-cancer pain were interviewed. The findings are thus representative of all such suffers in the U.S.:
Etiology of the Undertreatment of Chronic
Pain in America
In 1929 Alexander Fleming published his discovery of penicillin, the first antibiotic. Prior to this time, all the way back to ancient Greece, physicians could be relied on for little else beyond the skillful administration of opium preparations and later morphine, which was isolated by German pharmacists at the turn of the century, towards the effective relief of pain. Just as there is no historical record of a national drug abuse problem in the first decade of the 20th century, a pervasive problem of the undertreatment of pain was likewise unheard of. Indeed, especially after the invention of a practical hypodermic syringe by Alexander Wood in 1845, rampant undertreatment of pain such are we are experiencing in the early 21st century would probably have been unimaginable to medical practitioners in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.
Recognizing the efficacy of opioids in relieving pain and in improving the mood and functioning of the majority of chronic pain patients many experts have urged that such medications not be denied to sufferers. Portenoy, among others, has thoroughly studied and reviewed chronic opioid therapy and the consensus is clearly that long-term opioid treatment is safe, efficacious, and is widely perceived to improve functioning and quality of life. [Portenoy, 1996];[Portenoy & Foley, 1986]
How then can we explain the shortage of American physicians willing to prescribe appropriately potent opioids in appropriate doses on an ongoing basis to achieve such results? One reason is a persistent belief in the medical community that opioids are dangerous and difficulty to use and that in high doses commonly cause respiratory depression and death. In fact, respiratory depression is often seen in studies when opiate-naive subjects who are not in pain are given acute doses in the range commonly used to treat pain. The same doses given to opiate-naïve patients in pain do not cause respiratory depression. An explanation is that painful stimuli affect the respiratory center of the brain counteracting the respiratory depressant potential of the opioid. This is why opioids can and should be titrated to effect against pain. [McQuay, 1999] Further, respiratory depression and death from overdose are so rarely seen in pain populations receiving chronic opioid therapy because while tolerance to the analgesic effect of the drugs develops very slowly if at all, tolerance to the respiratory depressant and euphoric effects develops relatively rapidly.
A second persistent erroneous belief is that addiction is a common outcome of chronic opioid therapy. There is no research evidence of any quality that chronic opioid therapy is associated with any significant level of addiction outcomes. This is consistent finding over decades.
A corollary of the belief that opioid therapy commonly causes addiction is that modern potent opioid formulations favored by expert practitioners, for example sufentanil and Oxycontin, are especially dangerous in this regard. This is entirely incorrect and suggests a failure to understand the basic pharmacology of opioids and of substance abuse. Sufentanil is 1000 times more potent than morphine but it's therapeutic index, the ratio of the dose necessary stop breathing to the dose necessary to stop pain, is similar to that of morphine. The addictiveness of a substance, more accurately how neurophysiologically reinforcing a substance is, depends on the interaction of host, substance, dose, rapidity of onset of action, duration of effective blood levels after ingestion, and pattern of ingestion (daily regimen). Transdermal fentanyl and Oxycontin were designed in part to decrease abuse liability by producing a gradual onset of effects and prolonged steady state blood levels. This is distinctly different from the "drugs of choice" of substance users and abusers which are uniformly rapid in onset and of short duration, for example, caffeine, alcohol, amphetamine, methylphenidate, cocaine, short and intermediate acting barbiturates, alprazolam (Xanax), heroin, morphine, and short-acting oxycodone.
The third persistent erroneous belief widely held by the American medical community is that opioid drugs should be avoided because increasing medical use will lead to a corresponding rise in diversion to illicit recreational use. It is this "problem" that is the "drug crisis" that is the target of America's peculiarly intense regulation of controlled substances. Joranson et. al., in an important 2000 JAMA article, measured the proportion of opioid abuse (as opposed to mere non-medical use or emergency room "mentions" of opioid use) as well as overall trends in the medical use and abuse as a result of medicinal opioid therapy for severe pain. The results:
Conventional wisdom suggests that the abuse potential of opioid analgesics is such that increases in medical use of these drugs will lead inevitably to increases in their abuse. The data from this study with respect to the opioids in the class of morphine provide no support for this hypothesis. The present trend of increasing medical use of opioid analgesics to treat pain does not appear to be contributing to increases in the health consequences of opioid analgesic abuse. [Joranson, 2000]
Distortion of Medical Practice
The persistence and power of these beliefs, which are quite simply wrong, over the medical community is remarkable. This, I believe, is a consequence of basing national drug policy on the given that opioids are bad because the policeman says they are and are therefore dangerous for physicians who would prescribe them - but that is an uncomfortable thing for the medical community to admit. So we hold on to half truths and false beliefs which more acceptably bolster the legislatively encouraged behavior which is the avoidance, fear and loathing of opioid therapy. Jacob Sullum refers to this as opiophobia:
Torture, despair, agony, and death are the symptoms of "opiophobia," a well-documented medical syndrome fed by fear, superstition, and the war on drugs. Doctors suffer the syndrome. Patients suffer the consequences. [Sullum, 1997]
Society sanctions these beliefs and doctors are punished for acting otherwise by regulatory structure and function. The authority lies in state health practice acts and in the federal CSA and at both of these levels the war on drugs, war on doctors is unquestioned policy. It is this authority so directed that informs "the standard of medical practice" by which physicians are then judged, at least as much as the current state of medical understanding does. The various guidelines produced by clinicians in negotiation with various state and federal the boards and agencies also incorporate these erroneous beliefs and in fact reinforce and legitimize them. Often referred to as embodying the "principle of balance," in fact such activities are examples of the pitfalls and consequences of negotiating with people whose mission and values rest on a belief that addicts are criminals who belong in jail, and in drugs with the power to render citizens soulless, amoral, ghouls.
Even authors who ably explain the power relationships underlying the pain crisis in America conclude by calling for more physician education or for the inclusion of more clinical expertise in consensus building with law enforcement. They are wrong.
If the problem were one of physician knowledge or of the dissemination of clinical expertise, and not state and federal regulatory behavior guided by a war on drugs policy and mentality, then we would expect that medical knowledge and the current state of the practice of pain management would be substantially the same in countries where the regulatory balance struck is far less determined by anti-diversionary law enforcement. Let us consider two recent studies of doctors' medical knowledge and attitudes about basic aspects of pain management and about the deficiencies in the treatment of patients suffering from chronic non-malignant pain.
Rothstein et. al. 1998, using a questionnaire to investigate a sample of Germany physicians, found that the "[treatment] of pain with strong opioid analgesics was seen as beneficial for the patients [and the] use of strong opioids for long-term treatment was recommended, and psychological addiction was regarded as non-existent." [Rothstein et. al., 1998] The results of a similar survey administered to a group of Texas physicians in 2000 by Weinstein et. al. are starkly different. "Overall, a significant number of physicians in this survey revealed opiophobia (prejudice against the use of opioid analgesics), displayed lack of knowledge about pain and its treatment, and had negative views about patients with chronic pain." [Weinstein et. al, 2000]
In 1918, a mere four years after initial passage of the Harrison Tax/Prohibition Act, a high level commission was appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury to examine the drug problem. It reported that an illegal black market approximately equal to the legitimate medical trade in these substances had come into existence. It also noted that some twenty cities including San Francisco and New York were reporting increasing addict populations, suggesting migration and the beginnings of a drug subculture. [Brecher, 1972b] And so in 1918 the Treasury Department documented the birth of "the drug problem" in America. The committee noted that "the wrongful use of narcotic drugs had increased" since Harrison, but it is also simply and tragically true that the Narcotics Division of the Treasury Department in their legal challenging of Harrison and highly aggressive police actions directly brought these problems into being. Before prohibition there were no "wrongful users," no "illegal black market," no migration of addicts to form an incipient drug subculture and black market in major cities. We made these problems.
The committee's recommendation? Stricter law enforcement and the passage of State legislation patterned on the Harrison Act to stem the apparently rising tide of drug abuse. [Brecher, 1972b] And so the pattern was set. The perpetual drug crisis was brought into existence between 1914 and 1918. We have compounded the problem with decades of criminalization and imprisonment of drug users, collateral damage to generations of pain patients, and over eighty years of ongoing harassment of caring physicians and distortion of medical ethics and practice, and of the constitutional right reserved to the States to regulate medicine. The emperor has no clothes.
More Education of Physicians
As we have noted, calls for more and better education for physicians have been frequently offered as the solution to the pain crisis, and at one level, who could be against education? Educational campaigns regarding modern techniques of optimizing chronic opioid therapy in the treatment of non-cancer chronic pain, are in fact highly successful in countries where the chilling effect does not hold sway, but they are not effective in addressing the chilling effect itself, which is the problem in the United States. The point of the comparison between physician education in Germany vs. the U.S. (above) is not that German physicians better learned chronic opioid therapy, but that the U.S. doctors have also been taught an opiophobic worldview that places them squarely in a therapeutic double bind.
Not More "Research" in Thrall to Governmental
The American taxpayer deserves a lot more for the money they spend on supposedly "scientific" federally supported research from the likes of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, the Centers for Substance Abuse Treatment and indeed from the Congress of the United States. What we get is the endless spinning of data to suit drug war policy objectives and, as we have discussed in this paper, the knowing incorporation of nonsense and bad science into Congressional legislation such as the Drug Free Workplace Act of 1998. [DeLuca, 2002] If there is a real drug problem in this country let physicians and public health researchers rigorously define it and propose rational solutions instead of decade after decade of crisis declaration, denominator abuse, flash trash and shock schlock (see Appendix Two).
Not More Negotiation with Law Enforcement
Appeasement is a strategy that groups of clinicians and policy-makers have used in an attempt to work with the DEA to agree on common guidelines for prescribing for pain patients, for example. Appeasement is also a strategy or understanding employed by individual clinicians and policy makers as they justify their actions to themselves and others. For example, the clinician who declines to treat a patient for pain because that patient might be considered an "addict" by regulatory and law enforcement bodies is practicing appeasement.
What is common and what defines appeasement is a tacit agreement with the DEA core belief in magic substances that turn some users into criminal addicts requiring long term incarceration to be distinguished from deserving pain patients who may morph into criminal drug addicts at any moment. This is gibberish and nonsense, of course, promulgated by the very same police forces that invented and that perpetuate the real drug problem in America.
Law enforcement does not deserve a place at the table where scientists and clinicians and politicians of good faith should meet to honestly assess the harm that has been done to criminalized drug users, pain patients and physicians and earnestly seek ways to undue the public health crisis stemming from our disastrous drug war juggernaut.
to Let Doctors Treat Pain, Let Doctors
Treat Substance Use Disorders
The solution to this awful societal dilemma is to once again allow doctors treat patients respectfully, as whole and complex human beings. Some of these patients have simple medical problems; others complex conditions involving overlapping emotional problems and substance use disorders. Let doctors freely treat pain and addiction just as they do the other chronic public health problems of major importance and consequence in our society, such as alcoholism, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, HIV, chronic liver disease, and hepatitis C. These are medical and public health matters, and are treated primarily as such by all Western nations except the U.S.
Dr. Jerome H. Jaffe, a psychiatrist who became head of President Nixon's drug programs and established a network of methadone treatment centers for heroin addicts, remarked in the 1965 edition of Goodman and Gilman's textbook, The Basis of Therapeutics:
Much of the ill health, crime, degeneracy, and low standard of living are the result not of drug effects, but of the social structure that makes it a criminal act to obtain or to use opiates for their subjective effects... It seems reasonable to wonder if providing addicts with a legitimate source of drugs might not be worthwhile, even if it did not make them our most productive citizens and did not completely eliminate the illicit market but resulted merely in a marked reduction in crime, disease, social degradation, and human misery. [Jaffee, 1965]
Real Enemy is the Big Lie
In 1962 the United States Supreme Court described the addict as "one of the walking dead," and one could no doubt find isolated persons superficially fitting this description among addicts living under modern prohibition-caused conditions of high opiate prices, vigorous law enforcement, draconian penalties, and ostracism. The court erred, both in presenting its ghoulish description as the norm and by attributing this "addict" state of being to the drugs themselves rather than to the laws and to the social conditions which largely determine the how modern addicts live.
The US tries, through its drug policy, to keep drugs out of the hands of addicts; most countries, like the UK, Denmark, and the Netherlands, put their resources into trying to keep drugs out of the hands of the as-of-yet unaddicted. Addicts are treated, with various forms of opiate maintenance including methadone, heroin, and buprenorphine, by community physicians, individually. In the European model, addicts don't 'clump up,' and a drug subculture is less likely to form and less likely to be strong. In the American model, we interfere with the community treatment of addiction, instead segregating suffers into 'treatment centers' including drug-free inpatient, drug-free outpatient, methadone maintenance, and jail. Under conditions of prohibition this breeds subculture and crime-culture which is then misleadingly called "a drug problem." Accurately, these are drug prohibition problems.
It is argued here that prescription drug abuse is a trivial problem compared to under-treated chronic pain in this society, and one that would largely disappear were doctors permitted to freely treat addiction and pain. Instead, American physicians daily face the demoralizing and futile task of distinguishing between chronic pain and addiction, to the satisfaction not of the patient or medical peers, but of federal policemen who have the power to crush their livelihoods and jail them as drug dealers or murderers.
The myths of the criminal addict, of the perpetual drug crisis, and of a significant prescription drug problem caused by venal pill-pushing physicians in the guise of pain doctors are deeply intertwined in our national law, social values, prejudices about pain, poverty, and race, and have severely distorted our public health research systems and medical practice. This genie will not be put back in the bottle in anything like the four years (1914 - 1918) it took to unleash it. Administration after administration, Congress after Congress, generation after generation of physicians, and an entrenched and often reactionary substance abuse research and treatment industry, have all bought into and amplified the Big Lie.
We can start by looking to Western Europe and Australia where a policy of harm reduction has gone a long way in mitigating the worst abuses of the war on drugs, including supporting vastly more enlightened medical attitudes and of modern pain management practices. And we can stop negotiating with and attempting to appease law enforcement who brought this scourge upon us toward the accumulation and maintenance of their ever increasing power over the citizenry.
Let honest public health research and enlightened citizens groups and political leaders finally lead the way towards championing expert pain management for all, compassionate medical care for the sick and disabled among us, and universal respect for every individual as a human being who potentially suffers.
Declare a perpetual crisis...
The historical existence of a "drug abuse crisis" that justifies the extreme financial and social expenditures of a decades long "war on drugs," and the bizarre result that the practice of medicine is defacto regulated by federal law enforcement, is an article of faith among the drug warriors and one that has been so often repeated that it shocks many to hear that evidence for the existence of a problem for which the war on drugs is the solution is very scarce while evidence of the awful cost of the war itself abounds.
History aside, it is extremely difficult, I think, to make a rational argument that there exists a continuing drug abuse crisis complete with periodically declared "epidemics." Nonetheless, the relentless dirge and dire warnings of the drug warriors continues into the present. [Leshner, 2001];[Vastag, 2001] It is crucial that one thoroughly grasp the most robust trend in addiction epidemiology: drug use has dramatically declined over thirty years. Past month use rates are literally half of what they were in the 1970's, and there has been virtually no change in past-month drug use for over a decade. The declining trend was clearly established for a decade before workplace drug testing became routine. [Maltby, 1999] In 2000, Quest Diagnostics reported that positive urine drug tests were at historic lows, down some 66 percent in eleven years. [Quest, 1999] In that report, 62% of the positives were for marijuana - a group particularly unlikely to cause workplace problems. [DeLuca, 2002]It's Orwellian: thirty years of steady decline in national drug use but drug abuse somehow remains a "crisis" and an "epidemic" justifying a brutal war on doctors and pain patients.
A sort of statistical sleight of hand, Outcome Obfuscation is a misleading confusion of outcome and index event. For example, in their 2003 press release "The Myth of the 'Chilling Effect'" the DEA (see "The Dissembling DEA and the 'Chilling Effect'" above) the index event is the rate of actions against physicians, which they incorrectly calculate. The outcome would be some measure of effect on physician behavior resulting from the index prosecutions, which the DEA ignores.
Outcome Obfuscation commonly turns up in statements like the following, in which drug use is correctly identified as an index event, but is also incorrectly identified as the (problem) outcome.
· "In 2001 it is estimated that 94 million people had used an illegal drug at some point in their lives. Today, some 16 million people are using illicit drugs at least once a month -- about seven percent of the population."
· "The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reports a significant increase in "past month, non-medical use" of pain relievers among those age 18-25 when comparing 2001 data with that for 2000."
misleading message is: use = abuse = problem = national crisis
demanding federal action. More accurately and honestly we might say,
for example, that a teenage alcohol use rate of X (index event)
resulted in Y motor vehicle accidents (outcome).
The use of suggestive of provocative numbers or statistics, usually presented as true prima facie, which when analyzed using algebra, do not in fact support the implied conclusion.
A famous example of Flash Trash is contained in the Behrman case discussed in the "Historical Antecedents" section of this paper. Behrman was arrested for prescribing at one time 150 grains of heroin, 360 grains of morphine and 210 grains of cocaine. These amounts are not as outrageous as they might seem. Just to put the dosing in perspective, and considering for the moment only the morphine component of the medication regimen, 360 grains represents near ideal outpatient maintenance dosing for an opiate dependent person based on a modern understanding of methadone dose-effectiveness research.
I have no knowledge of Dr. Behrman other than what is written about him in the document by Rufus King in his "The Narcotics Bureau and the Harrison Act: Jailing the Healers and the Sick" article [King, 1953] and 1972 book, The Drug Hang-Up, America's Fifty Year Folly [King, 1972b] and in Brecher's 1972 Licit and Illicit Drugs, [Brecher, 1972c] and I do not know what his intentions were. Assuming for the sake of argument that he was acting as a legitimate physician, we could hypothesize that the morphine / heroin / cocaine regimen was part of a detoxification-to-abstinence regimen starting with morphine at, say, 200 mg /day decreasing the dose on a weekly basis, faster at first slower towards the end, switching at some point to heroin (believed at the time to be an effective 'cure' for morphine dependence) and ultimately tapering to abstinence using the cocaine, in the accepted manner of the day, to mitigate the depression and ennui known to accompany detoxification from opiates. This detoxification regimen could be accomplished, given the amounts of the medications involved, in six to twelve months depending of the patients' progress.
For another example of Flash Trash, consider the following sentence from a DEA document entitled, "A Closer Look At State Prescription Monitoring Programs" in the "Scope of the Problem" section by Susan Peine, DEA Program Analyst: "In the last five years of her life, Renee obtained at least 469 prescriptions—11,684 doses of pills—from 43 Treasure Valley pharmacies under the names of 110 doctors." [Peine, 2003] (Presumable there were many forgeries or did she see two docs a month for 5 yrs?)
If the patient were taking such most commonly prescribed opiates, the number of pills she had to work incredibly hard to obtain is the amount of medication, daily, commonly prescribed for toothache.
Shock Schlock is the presentation of lurid or otherwise shocking anecdotes in lieu of meaningful data and sober statistical analysis.
Consider again the "Scope of the Problem" section of the DEA's "A Closer Look At State Prescription Monitoring Programs" [Peine, 2003] which, after all, was written by a DEA 'Program Analyst:'
Kentucky is a hotbed of prescription drug abuse. The reasons are many—drug seeking patients, pill-pushing doctors, no-questions-asked pharmacists, and lax oversight and enforcement." Two examples cited: During a 15-month period, a woman visited 10 doctors a total of 45 times, went to three hospitals' emergency rooms at total of 43 times, visited four dentists, had 30 prescribers of medicine, filled 159 prescriptions in 103 visits to eight drugstores. Cost to the state $14,508; after she was restricted, her treatment for one year dropped to $3,091. During a 15-month period, a man visited five doctors a total of 56 times, went to two hospitals' emergency rooms a total of 18 times, had 224 prescriptions filled in 114 visits to 15 drugstores. Cost to the state $32,130; after he was restricted, his care for one year dropped to $5,604." [Peine, 2003]
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|Alexander DeLuca, M.D., FASAM||
Originally posted: 2004-06-05
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recently revised: 2011-06-14
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