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The Opioid Crisis Could Cost a Half Million Lives in the Next Decade

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in mid-August, showed a record 72,000 drug overdose deaths last year, with 49,000 related to heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioids. According to the authors of a study released last week in the American Journal of Public Health, that could be the new normal.

The study, by Stanford researchers Allison Pitt, Keith Humphreys, and Margaret Brandeau, attempts to assess the number of opioid-related deaths we could expect to see over the next decade, as well as the impact of different policy responses on reducing the death toll.

The researchers said there are steps that can be taken to reduce the death toll, but also that some seemingly simple solutions, such as cracking down on opioid prescribing for chronic pain, could actually increase the toll. And even those policies that could cut the opioid death rate are likely to do so only marginally.

Using a mathematical model, the researchers estimate that some 510,000 people will die over the next decade because of opioid use. The number includes not only drug overdoses but also other opioid-related deaths, such as HIV infections caused by shared needles.

Even including the non-overdose deaths, the number is staggering. Last year was the worst year ever for opioid-related overdose deaths, but this research suggests we are going to see year after year of similar numbers.

Making the overdose reversal drug naloxone more widely available could cut opioid-related deaths by 21,200 over the next decade, allowing greater access to medication-assisted therapies with drugs such as buprenorphine and methadone would save another 12,500 lives, and reducing opioid prescribing for acute pain would prevent another 8,000 deaths, the researchers said. But those three policy moves combined would shave less than 10 percent off the overall death toll.

"No single policy is likely to substantially reduce deaths over 5 to 10 years," the researchers wrote.

While harm reduction interventions such as those above would save lives, some aspects of tightening opioid prescribing would actually increase opioid-related deaths by as much as the tens of thousands -- because they increase heroin deaths more than they cut painkiller deaths. Moves such as reducing prescribing for chronic pain, up-scheduling pain relievers to further restrict their prescribing, and prescription drug monitoring programs all tend to push existing prescription opioid users into the illicit heroin and fentanyl markers all end up contributing to net increases in opioid deaths over the 10-year period, the researchers found.

On the other hand, other interventions on the prescribing front, such as reducing acute prescribing for acute pain (pain that may be signficant but is short-term), reducing prescribing for transitional pain, reformulating drugs to make them less susceptible to misuse, and opioid disposal programs, appear to prevent more deaths than they cause.

Ultimately, reducing the opioid death toll includes reducing the size of the opioid-using population, the researchers say. That implies making addiction treatment more available for those currently using and preventing the initiation of a new generation of opioid users. Restrictions on prescribing, while possibly driving some current users to dangerous illicit markets, can have a long-term impact by reducing the number of people who develop a dependence on opioids.

Whether that's a tolerable tradeoff for those pain patients who don't get the relief they need from other medications -- or for patients and others who end up dying from street heroin but might have lived despite their prescription opioid use -- is a different question.

By all appearances, when it comes to the loss of life around opioids, it looks like a pretty sad decade ahead of us.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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In A Word: Cannabis!

To fight the opioid crisis, legalize marijuana.

From a recent post on the NORML blog:

Studies: Marijuana Legalization Laws Correlated With Reduced Opioid Prescribing Trends

Thursday, 05 April 2018

Lexington, KY: The enactment of statewide marijuana legalization laws is associated with a reduction in the number of opioids prescribed and filled, according to a pair of studies published online Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

In the first study, investigators from the University of Kentucky and Emory University assessed the relationship between medical and adult-use marijuana laws and opioid prescribing patterns among Medicaid enrollees nationwide. Enrollees included all Medicaid fee-for-service and managed care enrollees - a high-risk population for chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and opioid overdose.

Researchers reported that the enactment of both medicalization and adult-use laws were both associated with reductions in opioid prescribing rates, with broader legalization policies associated with the greatest rates of decline.

"State implementation of medical marijuana laws was associated with a 5.88 percent lower rate of opioid prescribing. Moreover, the implementation of adult-use marijuana laws, which all occurred in states with existing medical marijuana laws, was associated with a 6.38 percent lower rate of opioid prescribing," they concluded. "[T]he further reductions in opioid prescribing associated with the newly implemented adult-use marijuana laws suggest that there were individuals beyond the reach of medical marijuana laws who may also benefit from using marijuana in lieu of opioids. Our finding that the lower opioid prescribing rates associated with adult-use marijuana laws were pronounced in Schedule II opioids further suggest that reaching these individuals may have greater potential to reduce the adverse consequences, such as opioid use disorder and overdose."

In the second study, University of Georgia researchers evaluated the association between the enactment of medical cannabis access laws and opioid prescribing trends among those eligible for Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. Researchers reported that medicalization, and specifically the establishment of brick-and-mortar cannabis dispensing facilities, correlated with significantly reduced opioid prescription drug use.

"This longitudinal analysis of Medicare Part D found that prescriptions filled for all opioids decreased by 2.11 million daily doses per year from an average of 23.08 million daily doses per year when a state instituted any medical cannabis law. Prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 3.742 million daily doses per year when medical cannabis dispensaries opened," they concluded. "Combined with previously published studies suggesting cannabis laws are associated with lower opioid mortality, these findings further strengthen arguments in favor of considering medical applications of cannabis as one tool in the policy arsenal that can be used to diminish the harm of prescription opioids."

The studies' findings are consistent with those of numerous prior papers concluding that legal cannabis access is associated with decreases in opioid use, abuse, hospitalizations, and mortality.

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