Book Review: “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America,” by Beth Macy

Dopesick, by Beth Macy

This well-written book has it all: compact information about how the opioid epidemic started, how our nation failed to act early to mitigate the damage of the epidemic, and how the epidemic shifted into our present predicament. The author did a great deal of research and talked to experts with vital information, but she humanized this data with personal stories about people affected by the opioid epidemic. She told this story not only from the view of the person with opioid use disorder, but also illustrated the grief of families who lost loved ones. The prolonged grief of families who have lost loved ones to opioid overdose deaths is rarely examined as well as it is in this book.

This is a book that will be staying on my shelf for a re-read.

The author is a journalist who works for the Roanoke Times newspaper, so this book focuses mostly on events in the western part of Virginia.

Avid readers on this topic will recall the book “Painkiller,” by Barry Meier, who also covered rural Western Virginia. Ms. Macy’s book picks up where Mr. Meier’s left off. They talk about many of the same communities and the same treatment providers, fifteen years later.

Mr. Meier’s book, published in 2003, could have been an early warning to the U.S. healthcare system. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t widely read, so few people took any note of what was going on, other than those of us already working in the field. I understand Mr. Meier wrote a second edition of “Painkiller” this year, and I plan to read and review it.

The most remarkable theme of Ms. Macy’s book is how the opioid use disorder epidemic grew worse over the past fifteen years. After physicians finally stopped prescribing so many opioid pain pills, these pills were less available on the black market. Many people with opioid use disorder switched to cheap and potent heroin.

In Ms. Macy’s book, she tells the experience of a rural physician, Dr. Art Van Zee, who was also interviewed for Barry Meier’s book. He was one of the brave people who stood up at conferences and raised the question about the ethics of Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin, when it wasn’t easy to question anything about that drug company. He’s the first physician I can recall who actively sought answers about his perceived over-prescribing and mis-marketing of OxyContin.

This isn’t in the book: I remember Dr. Van Zee at an Addiction Medicine conference called “Pain and Addiction: Common Threads,” that I attended in 2003 o4 2004. I bought the recordings of the conference, because I was so excited to learn more about Addiction Medicine. I remember a recorded session where Dr. Van Zee asked a question after a lecture, asking – as I remember it many years later – why Purdue Pharma was still peddling their OxyContin as a relatively harmless opioid for chronic pain, while he was seeing patients with lives destroyed by this drug.

It was one of those moments where all you hear are crickets. His question wasn’t answered, but rather he was reprimanded by the speaker. He was cautioned to remember our conferences were sponsored in part by Purdue money, and that appropriate prescribing of OxyContin was a huge benefit to patients. He was told it wasn’t the drug, it was the prescribing that needed to be fixed.

Fast forward to 2007. As described in “Dopesick,” Purdue Pharma pled guilty to fraudulent marketing of OxyContin, which was a felony misbranding charge. Purdue paid $600 million in fines. Its top three executives pled guilty to misdemeanor versions of the same crime, and ordered to pay a total of $34.5 million.

So yes, inappropriate prescribing was a big part of the problem, but Purdue deliberately misinformed physicians about potential dangers of the drug, which contributed to inappropriate prescribing. From a 2018 perspective, that speaker’s answer to Dr. Van Zee seems disingenuous at best.

Dr. Van Zee’s perceptions, based on his clinical experiences, were correct. Around that same time, I was seeing the same thing in rural Western North Carolina. I remember having twenty to thirty new patients show up on admission day, all of them were using OxyContin, almost exclusively. This drug was easy to crush to snort and inject, and Purdue knew it.

Purdue Pharma testified before congress in 2003 that they were nearly ready to release a new formulation of their OxyContin pill that was more abuse resistant. As it turns out, that new formulation wasn’t released until 2010. With that change, people with opioid use disorder changed to other opioids, easier to misuse, such as Roxicodone and Opana. Eventually Opana underwent reformulation to a less abused form.

But I digress; back to the book. The author’s first few chapters summarize the history of opioid use disorder and the factors that lead up to the release and promotion of OxyContin. It related how this drug crept into the social fabric of Southwestern Virginia, and how early attempts to sound an alarm about its abuse were met with contempt from drug company representatives.

Chapter Three tells of the “unwinnable” case brought against Purdue Pharma by Virginia attorney general John Brownlee. He went up against the famous Rudy Giuliani, who was one of the lawyers who represented the drug company, and successfully negotiated the eleventh-largest fine against a pharmaceutical company. This chapter contrasts this legal victory with the devastating grief of parents who lost their children to overdose death with OxyContin. The book describes the creation of the “OxyKills.com” message board, which became a sort of a database for overdose deaths. The chapter after that contains depressing descriptions of how Purdue Pharma’s corporation executives and the owners, the Sackler family, distanced themselves from the profound harm caused by their medication and criminal mis- marketing.

The next several chapters contain the tragic stories of people who became addicted to opioids, and their journeys through the criminal justice system, the addiction treatment system, and the pain their families felt, every step of the way. The author illustrates the ridiculousness of our patchwork system of care for people with opioid use disorder, and how ineffective treatments are often pushed as first-line options.

Then the book details efforts to pursue the heroin ring that sprang up in Virginia, and how the ringleader, a man named Ronnie Jones, was eventually arrested, charged and convicted of trafficking heroin from Baltimore to the Roanoke suburbs. Many of Jones’ drug runners were addicted young adults, many female, from Roanoke’s suburbs. Families were shocked when they found out their children were involved with the drug trade. Heroin used to be an inner-city drug, but times have changed. Heroin is now plentiful in suburban and rural areas, as this book illustrates repeatedly.

I was most interested in the author’s description of available treatments. Usually I dread reading writers’ summaries of treatment for opioid use disorder. If they describe medication-assisted treatment at all, it’s often couched in negative terms. However, this author did her homework.

She describes the accurate reasons why medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine and methadone is the gold standard of treatment, and even writes about some of the success stories. However, she also writes about the more common public perception of buprenorphine: “shoddy” prescribers located in strip malls who don’t mandate counseling or do drug testing patients. She writes about the poor opinion of Virginia law enforcement officials, who criticize doctors for not weaning people off the drug, and for allowing patients to inject the drug & sell it on the street.

However, it’s clear the author was able to grasp harm reduction principles, and latest research findings, since she said (on page 219) the unyielding opposition to MAT was the single biggest barrier to reducing overdose deaths.

I felt gratified to read this in print. I underlined it.

She also pointed out how some states’ refusal to expand Medicaid when given the opportunity kept many people with opioid use disorder from being able to access treatment. That’s more perceptive than I expect from a writer who isn’t trained in public health or substance use disorder treatment.

But my favorite part of the book was on page 221, where an addiction counselor named Anne Giles said of the opioid overdose death epidemic: “We should be sending helicopters!”

I underlined this too.

She pointed out that if the same number of people dying from opioid overdoses were dying of Ebola, the government would be sending helicopters of medical help to rescue people and contain the epidemic, and she’s right. We ought to be sending helicopters….helicopters loaded with emergency medical personnel and treatment medication. (By the way, per most recent data from NIDA, over 49,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdose in 2017. That’s one-hundred and thirty-four people per day. If they were dying from Ebola…helicopters for sure.)

So I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in this topic. Even if you aren’t interested, it’s so well-written that it will entertain you. I particularly appreciate the author’s talent at describing so many facets of this opioid epidemic and the obvious scope of her research.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Charlene Jordan on October 30, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    Doctor Janaburson, thank you for sharing this information on this book. I respect your honesty and look forward to your comments. This is my first dose writing to you. I am on buprenorphine treatment since 2005, and have 2 sisters on methadone treatment now this article was so interesting to me and I can’t wait to find them both… I never did oxycontin however I have done percocet 10, and lortab 7.5.  Please keep your blogs going you have some of the best reading books out there..Sent from Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Trudy Duffy on October 30, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    Thank you for mentioning Dr.Van Zee. I am eternally grateful he took the time to call me in Florida years ago and helped me understand what was happening to my son and find help.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Greg on October 30, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    I 100% disagree with everyone blaming drs for this epidemic,no dr,even the ones in the pill mills never ever wrote out a prescription telling patients to take 5 pills at one time or to break the medication and snort it up the nose,or to shoot the meds in the veins,no dr did this,I guarantee you that all prescriptions wrote were prescribed correctly,the dr can’t be held accountable for patients who don’t follow prescribing orders,then they get hooked and want to blame the dr,yes a dr should know when to stop prescribing to a patient that is addicted and most did,but the ones in it for the money kept giving them out but they are all gone,long gone,those days are over,you can have a bone sticking out of your body and they won’t give you pain meds now,I sure hope the ones that are dead set against drs prescribing pain meds has to have them one day,then they will get a taste of their own medicine and wish these laws and lawsuits hadn’t happened

    Reply

  4. I would hope that the book included the DEAs part in this. It is easy for them to go after doctors – they don’t have guns. In some instances the doctors were just making money, however in others the doctor accepted too many patients because they were the only treatment for hundreds of miles. It was hard to say no to another patient and another.

    But either way the patients were the ones to suffer. This includes both pain patients and addiction treatment. The DEA swoops in – often without informing and state agency and lock the doors. Now as patients arrive for their appointment – to get the next prescription they find a big lock on the door. None of the patients have been helped to find a referral. Their medical records carried off somewhere. Try going to the ER in an emergency like this – useless. If you are a pain patient you have no proof and if you are an addiction patient you have no credibility.

    So what do you do? You are in withdrawal – I know what I would do and I can guarantee that heroin dealers were hanging around that big lock locked door within 24 hours.

    That is how many legitimate patients transitioned to heroin.

    And what is so annoying is that at that one moment you had those patients – whether abusing the medication or not and you could move them to another clinic. But no and I hold the DEA responsible for the careless spread of an addiction to prescription medicine to heroin. They are as guilty as Purdue Pharma.

    Reply

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