Archive for the ‘drug diversion’ Category

Safe Storage of Medication

aaalockbox

Please please PLEASE, patients on opioid treatment programs, store your medication safely.

Of course, the vast majority of patients in opioid treatment programs, dosing with methadone or buprenorphine, store their medication safely and never have any medication storage issues.
The public never hears about these people, who calmly go about their daily lives as productive members of society.

But one incident of a pediatric overdose on medication prescribed for a patient in an opioid treatment program threatens the reputations of treatment programs and their patients. Each time a pediatric overdose occurs due to improper storage of medication, people who oppose opioid treatment programs get new ammunition to say patients should never be allowed any take home doses.

By the way, this information about safe storage of medication applies to opioids prescribed for pain and other controlled substances. Anyone prescribed any medication should store it safely.

So let’s review what should be done to keep medication safe and out of the hands of people for whom it isn’t prescribed, including children.
1. Store your medication in a lock box that is locked. It does no good to have a lock box if you leave the key in the lock. The key must be stored in another place. Otherwise, it’s just a box.
2. Unless you’ve been directed to split your dose, take your medication all at one time. The seal on the bottle is there for a reason. Once the seal is broken, all of the medication is meant to be taken at once. This gives less chance for part of your dose to be ingested by accident or on purpose by another person.
I know patients like to take a little bit of their dose at a time, multiple times during the day. That’s a pattern leftover from active addiction with short-acting opioids. Each time an addict takes something, it gives a feeling of benefit.
But the unique pharmacology of both methadone and buprenorphine means patients can take the entire dose once daily and feel the same as if they take multiple doses. In fact, with buprenorphine, some people in the early studies did OK with every other day dosing.
Some patients are fast metabolizers of methadone and have to have split dosing. We can determine who needs split dosing with careful dose titration and peak and trough blood levels when needed. Then the dose can be split precisely, in individual bottles.
3. Plan for the unexpected. People who don’t have children living in the home often get complacent about medication storage. But what about when friends or family visit? You may not remember to remove your medication bottles or unlocked box from plain site. It’s best to stay in the habit of storing your medication, in a locked box, out of sight and reach.
4. Children are driven by curiosity. If medication is stored where kids can get into it, overdose is more likely. Don’t underestimate a child’s capacity to get into things.
5. Be careful with your empty bottles. Patients are instructed to drink their methadone dose, and then put a little water in it to rinse any residual and drink that too. It’s possible a small amount of medication could still be in the bottle. That’s one reason we ask you to store empties in the lock box, too.
6. Don’t let your child be any part of your daily medication administration. Kids naturally like to imitate their parents. Take doses of all medications in private, out of their view. Of course, don’t let your kids play with or handle your empty bottles.
7. Your take home bottles should spend all their time in the lock box. That’s their home. That’s where they live. The only time they leave the lock box is for the few moments it takes to consume your day’s dose, and afterward the bottle goes right back in to the lockbox. It makes me nuts to see patients transporting empty bottles in their coat pockets and purses.
8. Don’t tell other people what medications you are on. Addicts in active addiction can do desperate things like break into your house and steal medication.
9. If your medication does get stolen, call the police right away. That way, if someone overdoses and dies from the medication dispensed to you, you have a record of doing all you can to report that it’s fallen into the wrong hands.
10. If the worse thing happens and a child or other person takes your medication, call 911 right away. You will lose take home medications, but it’s still the right thing to do. Remember that methadone and buprenorphine cause a peak effect anywhere from two to five hours later. Just because you don’t see any problems in the child for the first hour does NOT mean the child is safe. Don’t take any chances.
11. If you or a member of your household takes opioids either by prescription or illicitly, get a naloxone kit. Keep it in your house so that if an overdose happens, it can be reversed quickly. You can read more about naloxone kits on my blog post on April 27, 2013. You still need to call 911, because naloxone’s effects wear off much faster than methadone or buprenorphine.

Lastly, and it’s self-serving for me to say so, but store your take home doses safely for your doctor’s sake. That take home dose with my name on it is a vote of confidence that you will be careful about how you store your medication. It’s always a judgment call, and sometimes I get it wrong. I am affected when bad things happen with diverted or improperly stored take home doses that I’ve prescribed. Plus, I become more cautious when considering patients for take home doses. Medication-assisted patients complain about overly restrictive regulations around take home doses of medication, particularly methadone, but cases of pediatric overdose make those regulations necessary.

However, I try to remember that the vast majority of medication-assisted patients store their medication correctly and never have any incidents of accidental pediatric ingestion or any other misuse of medication. They’re responsible and careful. For every episode of carelessness leading to a pediatric overdose, hundreds of patients never have an episode with improper storage. It’s not fair to paint them with the same brush.

New Opioids

I’ve blogged about states that have passed new laws addressing the prescribing of opioids, but the manufacturers of prescription opioids medications also have made changes to help reduce the potential for medication misuse. Of course, opioids will never be misuse-proof, but at least it’s a little harder to misuse some of the newer ones.

Oxecta is a new immediate-release brand of the drug oxycodone. It’s formulated so that it breaks into chunks when crushed, instead of a powder. When it’s mixed with water, it forms a gel so that it can’t be injected. This pill contains sodium laurel sulfate, a substance that irritates the nose if snorted.

Lazanda is a new delivery form of a very potent opioid, fentanyl. This brand is designed to be used as a nasal spray, which I would expect to be very addictive. The preparation itself has no anti-abuse features, but in order to distribute, dispense, prescribe, or be prescribed this medication, parties have to sign an agreement and be enrolled with the drug company. This extra scrutiny is hoped to deter diversion by distributor, pharmacy, doctor, or patient. Physicians must take a training program specific for this brand, and be enrolled with the drug company as a prescriber, or pharmacies can’t dispense to the patient.

Patients also need to complete a patient-prescriber agreement. Many people (like me) think doctors aren’t likely to jump through these extra hoops to prescribe this particular brand, when other brands of the same medication are already on the market, though not in the form of nasal spray.

Remoxy, another brand of oxycodone, hasn’t yet been FDA approved. Supposedly, it’s resistant to injection or snorting, and also has been formulated to be resistant to alcohol extraction.

Drug companies are now required by the FDA to have plans to evaluate and mitigate the risks associated with the opioid drugs they manufacture, particularly if they make sustained release or long-acting opioid preparations. This cooperation by drug manufacturers is a necessary part of turning the tide of opioid addiction in this country.

Last year, Purdue Pharma re-formulated OxyContin, making it more difficult to crush to snort or inject.  I noticed a sudden drop-off in patients entering treatment for pain pill addiction who said OxyContin was their drug of choice. During the years 2002 through 2007, nearly all of the opioid addicts I admitted to treatment said OxyContin was their preferred drug. It became obvious that the re-formulation made a big difference.

Addicts can and will still abuse these medications orally to get high, but the new formulations really do reduce abuse by making pills less likely to be snorted or injected.

Misuse of Suboxone: What Should We Do?

I’ve been discouraged by the number of people who write to this blog indicating that they abuse Suboxone by snorting or injecting. I know that’s a small number of people, compared to the thousands that have used Suboxone to get their lives back, and who are in excellent recovery, but it still depresses me.

What should the addiction medicine community do? What should the government do, if anything? What about law enforcement?

In this country, most law enforcement people see abuse of Suboxone the same as any other street drug. For them, it’s usually black and white. If it’s not prescribed for you, or if you’re using it in a way that’s not prescribed, it’s a crime for which you should be prosecuted.

Harm reduction proponents see the situation wholly differently. Since Suboxone is usually safer than other illicit opioids (note I said safer, not safe), even when it’s misused, why not allow the illicit use? In fact, why not hand out Suboxone tablets to anyone proven to be an opioid addict? If the addict snorts or shoots Suboxone, at least he’s not shooting heroin, a much more dangerous drug. True, that person is susceptible to medical complications from injecting and snorting, but this would be true for any other opioid. And some studies indicate that most of the illicit Suboxone is bought by addicts either self-medicating in order to stay out of withdrawal, or giving the medication a try before making the financial commitment to go to a doctor’s office for a legitimate prescription.

In a purely scientific world, I would agree with the harm reductionists. But that’s not the world we live in. We should be sensitive and alert to political forces that would like to annihilate our present freedom to prescribe Suboxone from a doctor’s office. Doctors – and their patients – have to be good stewards of this freedom, by taking whatever measures are appropriate to keep Suboxone out of the hands of illicit users.

 So what can doctors do to reduce Suboxone diversion?

  • Tablet counts and film counts. When I get a new patient, I have in my monitoring agreement that I will occasionally call them to go to their pharmacy (Some patients drive up to forty minutes one way to see me, so it’s more convenient to go to their pharmacy than to my office. Most pharmacists are happy to help.) for medication counts. If the count is short, either the patient is taking more medication than prescribed, or diverting it. Decreased diversion is the drug manufacturer’s big selling point for the films, rather than the tablets. They say that since each box has a lot number, if a patient has sold or given away some of their films, they can’t just buy replacement films to replenish before their count, like can be done with tablets. The lot numbers have to match. I can see where in theory that can be true…but I can also think of some ways to easily get around that, which I won’t post here.
  • Urine drug screens to make sure buprenorphine is present in the urine. Screening should be done anyway, to check for other drug use. Doctors doing urine drug screens should, of course, have buprenorphine on their test panel. In the past this was an expensive test, but not at present. My on-site test kits cost less than $10 when bought in bulk, and test for buprenorphine, methadone, opiates, oxycodone, THC, cocaine, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepines. (I have individual test cassettes for other drugs, when indicated.) Obviously, if there’s no buprenorphine in the urine, we have a problem.
  • Check the prescription monitoring program in your state. If the patient is getting prescriptions for other opioids, like morphine or oxycodone, it’s possible the patient stops Suboxone and uses these opioids between doctor visits. The other possibility is that they sell these other opioids, also not an acceptable situation, since it fuels other addicts’ addictions.

What can patients do to help keep Suboxone away from illicit users?

  • Don’t share your medication. Even if someone you care about is in withdrawal, help him to get care from a legitimate source. Don’t endanger him and yourself by sharing medication. And of course…don’t sell your medication. Duh.
  • Make sure you keep your Suboxone in a lock box, or other safe place. Not only will this keep your medication away from children, but also from addicts looking for opioids. Many patients new to recovery haven’t yet cut off ties with all drug users, and other addict “friends” may be looking for medication.
  • If you know of a Suboxone patient who’s selling medication, tell their doctor. You don’t have to call the police to get them into legal hot water, but you should do all you can to stop the illegal sale of any prescription medication. After all, a patient selling Suboxone is endangering your right to get convenient, office-based treatment.
  • Family members: please call your loved one’s doctor if any part of their Suboxone prescription is being sold or given away to other people. Because of confidentiality, we may not even be able to confirm that your loved one is a patient, but we can always take information from you. We may do pill counts or other things to confirm what you are telling us, and then take action.

What are the possible consequences of continued diversion of Suboxone? Some authorities are talking about changing the DATA 2000 law. Others are clamoring for buprenorphine to be re-scheduled into a schedule II opioid, which would disqualify it under DATA 2000 for use in an office. It would still be available at an opioid treatment program. And many OTPs (opioid treatment programs) do now offer buprenorphine.

I advocate for continued availability of office-based buprenorphine treatment, but now I believe some patients should start at an OTP, and transfer to office-based program only if they do well. Some patients are so strongly addicted to other drugs that they don’t do well in office-based treatment.

I now work at a wonderful opioid treatment program that offers both buprenorphine and methadone upon admission. I’ve switched a few selected patients to my office-based practice. This means I see them and write a prescription for them to fill at a pharmacy, no longer chaining them to daily OTP dosing. I still see them at regular intervals, usually every one to two weeks. These patients can still contract with the OTP for individual counseling and drug testing. This allows the OTP to have a wider variety of treatment options for their patients, gives me a stable patient, and gives patients who are doing well more freedom and treatment at a lower cost. Win, win, win.

I hope more OTPs will begin to offer buprenorphine as a real option to methadone, so that patients who don’t do well in office-based programs can still be on buprenorphine. And I hope they direct the stable patients to office-based programs.

Drug Tests for Patients on Suboxone or Methadone

“Why do I have to do a drug screen? Don’t you trust me?”

Lately a few of my Suboxone patients seem to be questioning the need for drug screens. Some of them resent the tests, and resent paying for them.

So why do I do drug tests?

  • It’s good medical practice. Like many chronic illnesses, relapses happen. It’s better to detect these as early as possible, to discuss what happened, and if/how we need to change their treatment. If a patient has relapsed to opioids, it may mean that I need to increase the dose of Suboxone, if they were still able to feel an opioid high. If the relapse was to other drugs, it usually means we need to increase the “dose” of addiction counseling.
  • There’s a gold mine of information in relapses. I ask my patient what happened immediately before the relapse. Was she around people who were using drugs? Did she use drugs to try to get rid of an unpleasant emotion? Did she use drugs because she became complacent? The answers can help decide how best to avoid relapses in the future. If a patient is fortunate enough to live through a relapse, she can get information she can’t get any other way.
  • Drug screening benefits the patient by giving them accountability. Some patients are less likely to relapse with accountability. I’ve had patients say that the thought of having to talk about a relapse is enough to keep them from using drugs. This surprises me, but I’m glad.
  • Drug screening also shows them I’m serious about their recovery. I’m not just going through the motions of writing a prescription and getting paid for the visit. I really want my patients to recover and get their lives back.
  • Patients in treatment don’t always tell me when they’ve relapsed. In order for addiction to thrive, lies must be told. Otherwise honest people sometimes tell outrageous lies while they are in the throes of addiction. I see this as part of the disease. It’s not about them. It’s not about me. It’s the addiction.
  • I’m not a human lie detector. In the past, I smugly thought I could tell if someone had relapsed, so drug screens just confirmed what I already knew. After more experience, I know that’s not true.
  • It’s the standard of care. Even if the other reasons aren’t compelling enough to do drug screens, the vaguely increased regulatory oversight of doctors who prescribe Suboxone should induce them do drug screens. I know if my charts are ever audited by the DEA (unlikely), my state’s department of health and human services, or my state’s medical board (more likely), I want to show I’m doing things in the proper manner.
  • I don’t want to prescribe medications that will be diverted to the black market. Some doctors say, with some justification, that buprenorphine is a safer drug than most other illicit opioids, and we should look at black market diversion of buprenorphine as a form of harm reduction. However, governmental types don’t see things that way. The DEA certainly doesn’t. I don’t want to prescribe buprenorphine to people with the criminal intent of selling part or all of it. When I do urine drug screening, if there’s no buprenorphine present, that’s a serious matter. If the patient isn’t using what I prescribe, it’s likely they are selling it. Since such diversion of Suboxone endangers the whole program, it’s essential to stop prescribing for people who sell their medication.

These are my reasons for drug screening. Since I’m not going to stop doing them, addicts who object to screening have had to find new doctors. New opioid addicts who come to my office are told, both verbally and in writing, that I do drug screening. They can make their own decision about whether they want to see me as their doctor or go elsewhere.

Dosing Methadone for Pain versus Addiction

Using methadone for pain is different from using methadone for addiction.

It’s illegal in the United States for a doctor to prescribe methadone for the purposes of treating addiction, unless she is working at an appropriately licensed Opioid Treatment Center. Some doctors don’t know this, and have had grumpy DEA agents pay them a visit. However, it is legal for a doctor to prescribe methadone for pain, as long as she has an appropriate DEA license.

Methadone is prescribed differently when treating pain than when treating addiction. This is because each dose of methadone has an analgesic (anti-pain) effect of about six hours. However, methadone’s opioid blocking effect lasts for twenty-four hours or more. This is why methadone for pain should be dosed multiple times per day, but methadone for addiction can be given once per day.

The dose of methadone often varies, too, depending on the disease being treated. Doses of methadone 10 to 20mg, dosed three to four times per day, are adequate to treat pain for many patients. When treating addiction, studies have shown that patients do better when the doses are high enough to block other opioids. Usually, this occurs at doses 80 – 120mg per day, given as one dose. The patient doesn’t become sleepy or sedated at this dose because the dose is raised gradually, allowing time for tolerance to build to the sedating effect.

Some patients prefer to stay at a low methadone dose, so they can still feel intoxication from illicit opioids like heroin or oxycodone. For example, one patient told me he liked keeping his dose around 60mg, which was high enough to stave off the worst of his withdrawal symptoms. But it was also low enough to allow him to feel high from an injection of heroin in the evenings. He resisted going up on his dose as recommended by his treatment team.

Doctors have to be very careful prescribing methadone for pain. The very characteristic of the drug that makes it effective to treat addiction, its long duration of action, also makes it dangerous to prescribe. Too many patients, experimenting with methadone for the purpose of getting high, die of a drug overdose. Tolerance to the euphoric effect of methadone develops more quickly than the tolerance to the sedative effects. People consume a fatal dose before feeling high.

Over the last decade, the incidence of overdose deaths from methadone rose sharply. Most of these deaths were from people taking methadone pills, dispensed from local pharmacies, and prescribed by doctors who were treating patients for pain. Along the way, many milligrams were diverted to the black market, with disastrous results. Some methadone was diverted from opioid treatment centers, but appears to be a fraction of the total.

Given the overdose potential of methadone, it should be used cautiously when prescribed by physicians for pain. Soon, doctors may be required to take a training course before they can prescribe the long-acting opioids. This training will educate doctors on how to recognize if a patient is developing the complication of addiction, and to identify evidence of drug diversion.

Smuggling Suboxone

I was intrigued by an article I saw on my internet homepage. It was titled: “When Children’s Scribbles Hide a Prison Drug”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/us/27smuggle.html?_r=1&hpw

 This article describes unique ways Suboxone is being smuggled into jails. Law enforcement officials associated with both state and county jails from Maine and Massachusetts were interviewed. They say prisoners and their accomplices make Suboxone into a paste and smear it over the surfaces of papers sent to prisoners from their families. The article mentions the paste being spread over children’s coloring book pages, and under stamps. Suboxone films have been placed behind stamps or in envelope seams. Correctional officers now have to inspect material coming in the mail to prisoners much more closely.

 I had several thoughts. First, yet again, I’m struck by the creativity and cleverness of addicts. If only they could channel this energy in the right direction, amazingly good things could come to them, instead of the continued hardships brought by addiction.

 Then I felt sad that such actions described in the article would taint the reputation of a medication that has the potential to save lives, when used appropriately. Such illicit use of Suboxone gives ammunition to those who would prefer that office-based treatment with Suboxone didn’t exist.

 Then I wondered, how many of these prisoners have a legitimate prescription for Suboxone, but are denied their medication by prison officials? How many are legitimate patients of methadone clinics, also denied their medication while imprisoned, who know that Suboxone will alleviate some of the opioid withdrawal they are feeling? How many of these people are addicted to opioids, not in any kind of treatment, but who know Suboxone will treat their withdrawals?

At least one study supports the idea that many people use Suboxone illicitly not to get high, but to prevent withdrawal. Dr. Schuman-Olivier studied 78 opioid addicts entering treatment. Nearly half said they had used Suboxone illicitly prior to entering treatment. Of these people, 90% said they used to prevent withdrawal symptoms. These addicts also said they used Suboxone illicitly to treat pain and to ease depression.

Many law enforcement personnel and members of the legal community have strong biases against medication-assisted treatments. They don’t understand that addiction is a disease, and that methadone and buprenorphine are legitimate, evidence-based treatments. They have difficulty letting go of their idea that addiction is a choice that deserves blame, and have a punitive stance towards addicts. They have low opinions of addicts who are using drugs, but often have no better opinion of a recovering addict who has sought treatment and is doing well on replacement medications, like methadone or buprenorphine.

 But no matter what law enforcement personnel think they know, when they deny prescribed, life-saving medications, I believe they’re practicing medicine without a license.

The article mentions one woman who, with the aid of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, sued because her Suboxone treatment had not been continued while she was in jailed for a traffic violation. She settled out of court, but her lawyer made the excellent point that if inmates are denied their medications, they will try unlawful means to get it.

Other patients and their families have brought successful lawsuits against the jail facilities. In at least two cases, in the same Orange County, Florida jail, patient/prisoners were allowed to go through withdrawal for so long that they died. The estate of one person won a three million dollar judgment against the county. (1, 2)

I’m glad to see these lawsuits. I’ve heard appalling stories from many methadone patients, who were denied their medication while incarcerated. I’ve heard tales of jailers taunting these prisoners, when they became sick. There is no defense for such cruelty.

Orange County now works with local methadone clinics. If a prisoner is a current patient of a clinic, his clinic will send a week’s worth of medication in a locked box via courier. Nurses at the jail have the key to the box, and administer each day’s dose. The jail doctor consults with the medical director at the methadone clinic. Prisoners still have to pay out of pocket to get the medication, so the only cost to the jail is the time required for personnel to administer the medication. It’s certainly much cheaper than paying three million to the estate of a dead prisoner, not to mention much more humane.

I wish the county jails around the methadone clinic where I work would approach the problem of opioid addiction and treatment in a collaborative way. Sadly, only seven state prison systems offer medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine.

Rikers Island, in New York City, gives us another example of how such a system could work. There, opioid-addicted prisoners charged with misdemeanors or low grade felonies can be enrolled in a program known as KEEP (Key Extended Entry Program). This program treats opioid addicts with methadone and counseling. Upon release from Rikers Island, these patients are referred to methadone treatment centers in the community. Seventy-six percent have followed through with their treatment, post-release. The results of this program show significant reduction in reincarceration and significant reduction in criminal activity. (3)

Drug courts trying to save money would be well-advised to look at the Rikers Island program. Studies have shown a cost savings of at least four dollars for every one dollar spent on methadone treatment. This money is saved because methadone patients require fewer days of hospitalization and other healthcare costs, and also because of reduction in criminal activity and incarceration costs. (3, 4)

I know from comments written to this blog that there are many more people abusing Suboxone than I previously imagined. For sure, some of the prisoners getting smuggled Suboxone are misusing it. But I don’t think the majority are using for anything other than prevention of withdrawal, since they are usually not offered any other effective treatment for this medical condition.

  1. “Outrageous: the death of Susan Bennett raises serious questions about the competence and quality of the jail’s nursing staff” Orlando Sentinel, editorial, March 27, 1998.
  2. Doris Bloodsworth, “Inmate begged for methadone” Orlando Sentinel July 12, 2001.
  3. Par`rino, Mark, “Methadone Treatment in Jail,” American Jails, Vol: 14, 2000, issue 2, pp 9-12.
  4. California Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, 2004, California drug and alcohol treatment assessment (CALDATA) California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment (CALDATA), 1991-1993 [Computer File]. ICPSR02295-v2. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2008-10-07. doi:10.3886/ICPSR02295

 

Best Treatments for Addicts who Snort or Inject Suboxone

Suboxone misuse is much more common than I realized, as I’ve learned from people who write comments to this blog. These opioid addicts have described how they snort, inject, and even anally insert the Suboxone that’s meant to treat their addiction.

Not every addict can be treated with Suboxone from a doctor’s office. For some patients, the addiction is too strong, and they are unable to use the Suboxone as instructed. If a patient is injecting or snorting the medication meant to help them, they aren’t in recovery. These addicts need to be referred for another form of treatment. They aren’t being helped with Suboxone, except that perhaps it’s a little safer then other abused opioids, since at least there’s a ceiling on its opioid effects.

 What are the best options for these addicts? 

Most aren’t willing to go to inpatient detox followed by prolonged (one to six months) residential drug rehabilitation. It’s costly, and no one likes to be away from home for that long. However, this form of treatment can be life saving and gives the best chance of drug-free recovery.

Or they could enroll in an opioid treatment program, called OTP for short. In the past these facilities were called methadone clinics, because that was the only medication offered, but now many clinics also use buprenorphine. I’m glad to see this trend. For many patients, buprenorphine is a better drug. Patients tend to feel less medicated, and are less likely to feel any euphoria from buprenorphine. And the clinic gives patients more structure than I can from my office.

At OTP (opioid treatment programs) the patients are seen every day. Most clinics are open at least six or seven days per week. That way, patients can be given an observed dose each day. They won’t be able to misuse their medication, since a nurse places the tablet or film under the tongue, with buprenorphine. Methadone, dispensed as a red liquid, is swallowed each day in the presence of the nurse. Diversion to another person certainly isn’t impossible, but it’s much less likely to occur.

 So to all of the addicts now using Suboxone in unorthodox ways, snorting, injecting, and other ways, tell your doctor what you are doing. You can get your addiction treated by going to a clinic each day. Counseling is built into the opioid treatment program system. Patients there must see their counselors, and many clinics also make group sessions mandatory.

 I’ve become gradually more selective about who I’m willing to treat with Suboxone in my office. I’m more vigilant about medication misuse, since this blog taught me that it happens much more frequently than I previously thought. I now believe that only very stable opioid addicts should be treated in an office setting. Older addicts with jobs, families, and no other addictions appear to do the best in this type of treatment. From now on, if I have openings for new patients, I’m going to screen more rigorously. Many addicts have an addiction that’s too severe to treat with office-based therapy.

Drug Deals at the Methadone Clinic

Ideally, a drug deal should never happen at a methadone clinic.

This is a difficult topic, because it’s about a negative aspect of addiction treatment at methadone clinics. But nothing’s to be gained by ignoring the problem. We need to acknowledge problems of methadone clinics before we can improve them. People who are opposed to methadone as a treatment for opioid addiction often cite parking lot drug dealing as one of their reasons not to “believe” in methadone (as if it were a spiritual experience).

Methadone clinic administrators disagree on how to handle drug dealing and other problem behavior by patients at a clinic. Some administrators say that many addicts, to a greater or lesser degree, have sold drugs to finance their own habit. The buying and selling of drugs, fighting, and other problem behaviors are all part of addiction, and this behavior doesn’t change overnight. These administrators say that it’s unrealistic to expect patients not to deal drugs. After all, patients arrive in treatment with varying degrees of commitment to get well. Many such methadone clinic administrators don’t want to dismiss patients from the clinic for bad behavior, given the markedly increased risk of death for those who leave.

I don’t agree with that position. I think it infantilizes people with addiction to assume they aren’t capable of behaving in an acceptable manner. If you let patients know that drug dealing won’t be tolerated, it’s much less likely to occur. Tolerating drug dealing implies that clinic management is lazy, apathetic, or just don’t care about the patients who want to get well. Clinics should be safe places for patients who want to get well. It’s not acceptable for these patients to have to walk through a parking lot crowded with drug dealers. 

Clinic administrators can do several things to secure their premises. They can hire security guards to patrol the parking lots. This may or may not be necessary, depending on the physical arrangement of the clinic. Video cameras can be positioned inside the clinic and in the parking lot, for monitoring.

At one of the clinics where I work, I like how security is handled. We don’t need a security guard, because the program manager’s window overlooks the parking lot. He’s only steps from our exterior door, and quickly confronts our patients not only if they appear to doing a drug deal, but also if they loiter, throw trash, or smoke cigarettes. (We are a non-smoking facility).

Our program manager knows our patients are capable of behavioral change. Many of them have survived harrowing experiences, and had to develop coping skills to survive. They have abilities for which they are rarely given credit. Once we let them know what we expect, nearly all honor us and themselves by abiding with our guidelines. They also want a safe, clean treatment center. We get a little grumbling about the non-smoking rule, though.

This clinic’s “no loitering” policy, seemed harsh to me at first. The patients are asked not to talk to each other in the parking lot. Then the administrator explained that socializing in the parking lot allows a milieu where drug dealing can occur. If patients shared transportation, as often happens at more rural clinics, they need wait on each other inside, in the waiting room. The waiting room is in the middle of the clinic and well-monitored by two counselors. We ask patients not to talk about drugs or addiction “war stories.” Most of them understand that such talk often triggers cravings to use, and are able to refrain from such conversation.

It helps that our clinic is small, at just over 100 patients. When clinics are bigger, chaos and bad behavior is more likely to happen. That’s another reason I like working in smaller clinics, where I know all of the patients.

If patients are unable to abstain from drug dealing in our parking lot, they may not be well enough to be in this form of treatment. The safety of patients comes first; if one patient presents a risk to other patients’ well-being, we have to take whatever measures are necessary for the safety of all.

 Non-patient drug dealers often target drug treatment clinics, expecting to find easy customers. The police need to be called on these people

So Long Soma

Soma, a well-known brand name of the drug carisoprodol, is prescribed by doctors in the U.S. as a muscle relaxant. However, it does have the potential to cause addiction. Soma is now a Schedule III or Schedule IV controlled substance in about twenty states, and the DEA may soon make it a Schedule IV drug in all states. Carisoprodol has been removed from the market in other nations, due to its potential for addiction.

 All potentially addicting drugs are scheduled, meaning the physician has to have a DEA number to legally prescribe them. Non-scheduled drugs (antibiotics, antidepressants, blood pressure or diabetes medication) aren’t addicting, and the doctor doesn’t need a DEA number to prescribe these. They aren’t tracked by the DEA. Drugs are scheduled I through V, depending on the potential for addiction and the degree of therapeutic usefulness. Schedule I drugs have very high potential for addiction, and very little therapeutic use. Other medications are more beneficial with less risk of addiction. Heroin and Ecstasy are two examples of Schedule I drugs. At the other extreme, Schedule V drugs have some risk of addiction, though fairly low. Examples are low-dose codeine and other low-dose opioids.

 I hate Soma. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a prescription for it. I see too many people who have become addicted to it, or who use it with opioids. There are other better and safer muscle relaxants.

Soma gets metabolized to meprobamate, an old-timey barbiturate. Doctors used barbiturates as sedatives before the safer benzodiazepines came on the market.

 Some addicts say they like the high that they get when they mix Soma with opioids. Since I treat opioid addicts, I see the dangers of mixing Soma with maintenance medications like methadone and buprenorphine. Just like benzodiazepines, Soma has a synergistic effect with opioids, causing more sedation than expected. This is how it can kill. The user takes opioids with Soma, it turns into a barbiturate, and the combination puts the person into a deep sleep. In fact, this combination can make them sleep so deeply that the respiratory center of the brain, which tells us to breathe when we sleep, turns off. The person stops breathing, and without oxygen, vital organs like the brain and heart die, and the person never wakes up.

 At the recent ASAM conference in Washington, D.C., one presenter reminded us of how addicting carisoprodol can be: in one study, around 65% of patients with a personal history of a substance use disorder misused carisoprodol when it was prescribed to them for over three months. And even worse, only 18% of the prescribing doctors knew that this medication is metabolized to meprobamate. (1)

 If you have a history of any sort of addiction disorder and your doctor is prescribing Soma, talk to her. It’s likely that another safer and more effective medication can be found. Soma is only FDA approved for two or three weeks of continuous use, anyway.

  1. Reeves, RR; Carter, S; Pinkofsky, HB; Struve, FA; Bennett, DM; “Carisoprodol (Soma) Abuse Potential and Physician Unawareness; Journal of Addictive Diseases, Vol. 18 (2), 1999, pp 51-56.

Doctors Are Poorly Trained About Addiction and Recovery

Addiction? What addiction?

Most medical schools and residency programs place little emphasis on educating future physicians about addiction. A survey conducted by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) revealed that physicians are poorly trained to recognize and treat addictive disorders. (1)

CASA surveyed nine-hundred and seventy-nine U.S. physicians, from all age groups, practice settings, and specialties. Only nineteen percent of these physicians said they had been trained in medical school to identify diversion of prescribed drugs. Diversion means that the drug was not taken by the patient for whom it was prescribed. Almost forty percent had been trained to identify prescription drug abuse or addiction, but of those, most received only a few hours of training during four years of medical school. More shocking, only fifty-five percent of the surveyed doctors said they were taught how to prescribe controlled drugs. Of those, most had less than a few hours of training. This survey indicates that medical schools need to critically evaluate their teaching priorities.  

Distressingly, my own experience mirrors this study’s findings. My medical school, Ohio State University, did a better job than most. We had a classroom section about alcoholism, and were asked to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, to become familiar with how meetings work. But I don’t remember any instruction about how to prescribe controlled substances or how to identify drug diversion.

Is it possible that I’ve forgotten I had such a course? Well, yes. But if I can still remember the tediously boring Krebs cycle, then surely I would have remembered something juicier and more practical, like how to prescribe potentially addicting drugs. Similarly, less than half of the surveyed doctors recalled any training in medical school in the management of pain, and of those that did, most had less than a few hours of training.

Residency training programs did a little better. Of the surveyed doctors, thirty-nine percent received training on how to identify drug diversion, and sixty-one percent received training on identifying prescription drug addiction. Seventy percent of the doctors surveyed said they received instruction on how to prescribe controlled substances. (1)

This last finding is appalling, because it means that thirty percent of doctors received no training on how to prescribe controlled substances in their residency programs.  Could it be true that nearly a third of the doctors leaving residency – last stop for most doctors before being loosed upon the populace to practice medicine with little to no oversight – had no training on how to prescribe these potentially dangerous drugs? Sixty-two percent leaving residency had training on pain management. This means the remaining thirty-eight percent had no training on the treatment of pain.

Could it be that many of these physicians were in residencies or specialties that had no need to prescribe such drugs? No. The participating doctors were in family practice, internal medicine, OB/GYN, psychiatry, and orthopedic surgery. The study included physicians of all ages (fifty-three percent were under age fifty), all races (though a majority at seventy-five percent were white, three other races were represented), and all types of locations (thirty-seven percent urban, thirty percent suburban, with the remainder small towns or rural areas). This study reveals a hard truth: medical training programs in the U.S. are doing a poor job of teaching future doctors about two diseases that causes much disability and suffering: pain and addiction. (1)

 I remember how poorly we treated patients addicted to prescription medications when I was in my Internal Medicine residency program. By the time we identified a person as addicted to opioids or benzodiazepines, their disease was fairly well established. It didn’t take a genius to detect addiction. They were the patients with thick charts, in the emergency room frequently, loudly proclaiming their pain and demanding to be medicated. Overall, the residents were angry and disgusted with such people, and treated them with thinly veiled contempt. We regarded them more as criminals than patients. We mimicked the attitudes of our attending physicians. Sadly, I did no better than the rest of my group, and often made jokes at the expense of patients who were suffering in a way and to a degree I was unable to perceive. I had a tightly closed mind and made assumptions that these were bad people, wasting my time.

Heroin addicts were not well treated. I recall a discussion with our attending physician concerning an intravenous heroin user, re-admitted to the hospital. Six months earlier, he was hospitalized for treatment of endocarditis (infected heart valve). Ultimately his aortic heart valve was removed and replaced with a mechanical valve. He recovered and left the hospital, but returned several months later, with an infected mechanical valve, because he had continued to inject heroin. We discussed the ethics of refusing to replace the valve a second time, because we felt it was futile.

I didn’t know any better at the time. We could have started him on methadone in the hospital, stabilized his cravings, and then referred him to the methadone clinic when he left the hospital. Instead, I think we had a social worker ask him if he wanted to go away somewhere for treatment, he said no, and that was the end of that. Small wonder he continued to use heroin.

At a minimum, the attending physician should have known that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, and that it is treatable. The attending physician should have known how to treat heroin addiction, and how to convey this information to the residents he taught. Instead, we were debating whether to treat a man whose care we had mismanaged. Fortunately, he did get a second heart valve and was able to leave the hospital. I have no further knowledge of his outcome.

 Despite having relatively little training in indentifying and treating prescription pill addiction, physicians tend to be overly confident in their abilities to detect such addictions. CASA found that eighty percent of the surveyed physicians felt they were qualified to identify both drug abuse and addiction. However, in a 1998 CASA study, Under the Rug: Substance Abuse and the Mature Woman, physicians were given a case history of a 68 year old woman, with symptoms of prescription drug addiction. Only one percent of the surveyed physicians presented substance abuse as a possible diagnosis.  In a similar study, when presented with a case history suggestive of an addictive disorder, only six percent of primary care physicians listed substance abuse as a possible diagnosis. (2)

Besides being poorly educated about treatments for patients with addiction, most doctors aren’t comfortable having frank discussions about a patient’s drug misuse or addiction. Most physicians fear they will provoke anger or shame in their patients. Physicians may feel disgust with addicted patients and find them unpleasant, demanding, or even frightening. Conversely, doctors can feel too embarrassed to ask seemingly “nice” people about addiction. In a CASA study titled, Missed Opportunity, forty-seven percent of physicians in primary care said it was difficult to discuss prescription drug addiction and abuse with their patients, for whom they had prescribed such drugs. (2).

From this data, it’s clear physicians are poorly educated about the disease of addiction at the level of medical school and residency. Even when they do diagnose addiction, are they aware of the treatment facilities in their area? Patients should be referred to treatment centers who can manage their addictions. If patients are addicted to opioids, medications like methadone and buprenorphine can be a tremendous help.

  1. Missed Opportunity: A National Survey of Primary Care Physicians and Patients on Substance Abuse, Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, April 2000. Also available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org

2. Under the Rug: Substance Abuse and the Mature Woman, Center on Addiction and

Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 1998. Available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org

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