Expert Testimony, Opioid Drugs, and a 21st Century Epidemic
Within the opioid addiction epidemic in this country, several types of drugs play a role. But opiates take the lead for causing the most harm, for taking the most lives, and for creating the largest public health burden.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited that, of the more than 70,000 people who died from drug overdoses in 2017, about 68 percent involved an opiate. In fact, since the turn of the century, a significant majority of drug deaths have involved opiates.
How can we dig ourselves out of this crisis? And in a world where medical experts, drug companies, and even the FDA still support the use of pain meds, who can we turn to for advice? Which experts are speaking out against the mass use of prescription opioids?
Addiction Expert Addresses the Issue
Dr. Andrew Kolodny is the Director of Opioid Policy Research at Brandeis University. Since the beginning of the opioid addiction epidemic, Dr. Kolodny has been working to reverse the crisis. His primary role has been to hold pharma giants accountable, to educate doctors in ethical and conservative prescribing and to encourage safer pain-management practices.
The doctor spoke with candor on the subject of prescription painkillers: “The effects produced in the brain by oxycodone and hydrocodone are indistinguishable from the effects produced by heroin. When we talk about opioid pain medicines, we’re essentially talking about heroin pills. With repeated exposure to a highly addictive drug, just about anybody can become addicted.”
That quote is taken from an article by PBS. The article is a thorough piece of journalism, one that does not pull any punches in describing the opioid epidemic and Big Pharma’s role in it.
Dr. Kolodny does not decry the use of prescription opioids under every circumstance. But he does insist that opiates are greatly overused—exceptionally so: “These are essential medicines for easing suffering at the end of life and when used for a couple of days after major surgery or a serious accident. If you’re taking them around the clock every day, quickly, you become tolerant to the pain-relieving effect. In order to continue getting pain relief, you’ll need higher and higher doses. As the doses get higher, the treatment becomes more dangerous, and the risk of death goes up.”
And Dr. Kolodny is not just a guy who is talking about the harm in prescription opiates. He is also directing an ongoing investigation into the marriage of Big Pharma to the FDA. He is uncovering the secrets of the epidemic, how these life-threatening drugs were even approved in the first place.
“We found out that a group of experts and FDA and pharmaceutical companies were having private meetings and at these meetings, changing the rules for how opioids get approved…”
Quoting him from the CBS News article cited above: “We found out that a group of experts and FDA and pharmaceutical companies were having private meetings and at these meetings, changing the rules for how opioids get approved. They (pharma companies) had drugs in their pipeline, pain medicines that they wanted approved. And through these meetings, they were able to get those products on the market. The culture at FDA continues to be much too cozy with the industry it’s supposed to be regulating.”
Using Big Pharma Lawsuits to the Advantage of the People
More recently, Dr. Kolodny stood as an expert witness in Norman, Oklahoma, during an opioid trial. This lawsuit was brought by the state of Oklahoma versus Johnson & Johnson. Dr. Kolodny watched as Johnson & Johnson lost the court case. The court ordered the company to pay $572 million to help the state fight the epidemic and repair the damage that Johnson & Johnson’s drugs had wrecked upon that region.
This is not the first pharma company to lose such a legal battle. But it is one of the first. In almost every state in America, individuals, community groups, counties, and state attorneys general are filing suit against pharma companies for the role such companies played in the creation of the epidemic. And Big Pharma is starting to lose. The truth is out, and the American people will be deceived no longer.
But these lawsuits mean very little if their end product is not a comprehensive benefit to the communities hit hardest by the opioid crisis. Again quoting Dr. Kolodny: “If we want to reduce overdose deaths and improve outcomes in people who are addicted, the influx of money from trials and settlements should be used to make treatment free and easier to access than prescription opioids, illicit fentanyl, and heroin. The need for more and better treatment is vast. It is tangible, especially in communities hardest hit by the epidemic, and it is measurable.”
And that statement could not be more accurate. Indeed, if the U.S. is ever going to pull itself out of this mess, it’s going to require the treatment of the millions of Americans who are addicted to opiates. With hundreds of millions of dollars coming in from legal settlements, states now have the opportunity to fund treatment programs for their residents.
The Importance of Residential Treatment
Now more than ever, we must ensure that our family members and loved ones get the help they need. We have to encourage residential treatment for anyone and everyone who is addicted. We should encourage our state policymakers to use pharma settlements to fund residential treatment centers within our communities.
But we should also not wait for state governments and pharma lawsuits. If we know someone who is addicted to drugs, there is no good reason to wait for anything.
We have to remember that addiction is a life-or-death matter. Tens of thousands of people die from opiate overdoses every year. Any day could be an addict’s last. For those of us who have a friend or family member who is actively using drugs, it’s up to us to help get them into a residential treatment center as soon as possible.