Archive for the ‘History of Opioid Addiction’ Category

Top Ten Books for Methadone Counselors

I have a fair number of methadone counselors who read my blog. I’m often asked by these counselors what books I recommend, which is like asking me what kind of dessert is good. The list is so long. But here are the ones all methadone counselors should read:

  1.  Medication-assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction in Opioid Treatment Programs, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This is better known as “TIP 43,” because it’s the 43rd book in the series of treatment improvement protocols published by SAMHSA. You can get any book in the series for FREE! Yes, this book and several others are free resources. The website is: While you’re there, order TIP 40: Clinical Guidelines for the Use of Buprenorphine in the Treatment of Opioid Addiction, and TIP 35: Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Abuse Treatment. Then browse around, and see what else interests you. This is a great website, and all addictions counselors should be very familiar with it. There’s great material for counselors and their clients.
  2.   Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope, by….me. Hey, it’s my blog, so of course I’m gonna list my book. At least I didn’t put it at number one. But seriously, I do think my book describes what opioid addiction is, why this country is having such problems with opioid addiction now, and the available treatments for this addiction. I focus on medication-assisted treatments, which means treatments with methadone or buprenorphine, better known as Suboxone. After reading my book, any substance abuse counselor should be able to talk intelligently with patients and their families about the pros and cons of medication-assisted treatment. I tried hard to base this book on available research and not my own opinions, though I do state some of my opinions in the book. My book also has summaries of the major studies done using medication-assisted treatments, so that if you need resources to prove why methadone works, you’ll have them. OK. I’m done blathering. Order it on EBay and you’ll save some money.
  3.      Motivational Interviewing by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick. This is a book all addiction counselors should have… and read. I’ve learned so much about how to interact with people as they consider if, how, and when to make changes in their lives by reading this book. The authors demonstrate how the Stages of Change model easily fits with this style of counseling. There are some solid examples of how to incorporate MI techniques.
  4.      Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse, by Aaron Beck et. al. This is a venerable text describing cognitive therapy as it applies to substance abuse. The book is relatively concise, but it’s still dense reading. Get out your underliner because you’ll want to find some parts to read again. The dialogues in the book that serve as examples are instructive. This book has been around for some time, as texts go, since it was published in 2001.
  5.     Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text, by Narcotics Anonymous World Service. Now in its sixth edition, this is one of the books that serve as a foundation for 12-step recovery in Narcotics Anonymous. If you are a counselor who’s in recovery, you’ve probably already read it. If you’re not, you need to get it, read it, and be able to talk intelligently about the 12-step recovery program of this 12-step group. The AA “Big Book,” which is AA’s version of a basic text, has much of the original old-time words and phrases, and speaks mostly of alcohol. For these reasons, some addicts won’t like the Big Book as well as the NA Basic Text. However, the Big Book does have a certain poetry that will appeal to others. (….trudge the road of happy destiny…) You can order it at or go to that site and download it as a pdf.
  6.  The Treatment of Opioid Dependence, by Eric Strain and Maxine Stitzer. Written in 2005, this is an update to a similar title written in the 1990’s. This book reviews the core studies underpinning our current treatment recommendations for patients in medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction. I don’t know why more people haven’t read this book, because it’s relatively easy to understand. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it will be too advanced for you. Get it and read it.
  7. Addiction and Change: How Addictions Develop and Addicted People Recover, by Carlo DiClemente. This book describes the paths people follow as they become addicted and as they recover. It’s focused on the transtheoretical model of the stages of change, so named because it can be used with many counseling theories. I think this is a practical book, and easier to understand than some texts.
  8.  Diagnosis Made Easier: Principles and Techniques for Mental Health Technicians, by James Morrison M.D. This is an improvement of his earlier book, DMS IV Made Easy, written in 1992. At any work site, addictions counselors will have to be familiar with the criteria used to diagnose mental illnesses. Since around 30 – 50% of addicts have another co-occurring mental illness, you need to be familiar with the criteria used to diagnose not just addiction, but these other illnesses as well. And this book makes learning relatively painless. It’s practical and easy to read, and based on common sense. It contains many case examples, which keep it interesting.
  9. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, by David Musto. This book has been updated and is on its third edition, but so much has happened since this last edition in 1999 that the author needs to write an update. This is an interesting book, and it moves fairly quickly. This information puts our present opioid problem into the context of the last century or so. As an alternative, you can read Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America, by David Courtwright in 2001. I included this book, but be warned it’s heavier reading. This author is an historian, so maybe his writing style didn’t resonate with me as much. Still, he has much good information. You can’t go wrong with either book. You could also read The Fix by Michael Massing, which is another book about the history of addiction and its treatment in the U.S… This last book doesn’t focus on just opioid addiction, but still gives all the pertinent history. This book is written by a journalist and will keep your interest. It was written in 2000.
  10.  Hooked: Five Addicts Challenge Our Misguided Drug Rehab System, by Lonnie Shavelson. This book, written by a journalist, follows five addicts through the labyrinth of addiction treatment. You’ll see the idiotic obstructions addicts seeking help are asked to negotiate in our present healthcare system. I was angry as I read the book, seeing obvious simple solutions that couldn’t be enacted for one administrative reason or another. Let this book make you angry enough to demand change from our system. Be an advocate for addicts seeking treatment.

 Have I left out any? Let me know which book have helped you be a better counselor or therapist.

The Pain Management Movement

 In the late 1990’s, organizations like the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Management declared that doctors in the U.S. were doing a lousy job of treating pain, and were under-prescribing opioid pain medications, due to a misguided fear of causing addiction. As a result, there was a national push to treat pain more aggressively. Some states even passed pain initiatives, mandating treatment for pain. Lawsuits were brought against doctors who didn’t adequately treat pain. The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JACHO), the organization that inspects hospitals to assess their quality of care, made the patient’s level of pain the “fifth vital sign,” after body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Pain management specialists encouraged more liberal prescribing of pain medication. These experts told their primary care colleagues that the chance of developing addiction from opioids prescribed for pain was about one percent.

With these limited facts, the pain management movement was off and running. Many pain management specialists, some of whom were paid speakers for the drug companies that manufactured powerful opioid pain medications, spoke at seminars about the relative safety of opioids, used long term for chronic pain. Pain management specialists taught these views to small town family practice and general medicine doctors, who were relatively inexperienced in the treatment of either pain or addiction.

The problem was…the specialists were wrong.

These specialists, in their well-intentioned enthusiasm to relieve suffering, used flawed data when reciting the risk for addiction. The one percent figure came from a study looking at patients treated in the hospital for acute pain, which is quite different from treating outpatients with chronic non cancer pain. (1) In other words, they compared apples to oranges.

To many addiction specialists, an addiction risk of only one percent seemed improbable, since the general population has an addiction risk estimated from six to twelve percent. Surely, being prescribed pain pills would not lessen the risk for addiction. Yet the one percent figure was often cited by many pain management professionals, as well as by the representatives of the drug companies selling strong opioids. 

Some pain management specialists even took a scolding tone when they spoke of some primary care physicians’ reluctance to prescribe strong opioids. They often muddied the waters, and grouped patients with cancer pain, acute pain, and chronic non-cancer pain together, and spoke of them as one group. This can feel insulting to doctors who, though reluctant to prescribe opioids endlessly for a patient with chronic non cancer pain, are adamant about treating end-of-life cancer pain aggressively with opioids. No compassionate physician limits opioids for patients with cancer pain or with acute, short term pain. However, chronic non-cancer pain is different, with different outcomes than acute pain or cancer pain.

 We didn’t learn from history, or we would have learned that when many people have access to opioids, many will develop addiction.  We are scientifically more advanced than one hundred years ago, but we still have the same reward pathway in the brain. The human organism hasn’t changed physiologically. The present epidemic of opioid addiction is reminiscent of the early part of the twentieth century, just after the Bayer drug company released heroin, which for a short period of time was sold without a prescription, before physicians recognized that over prescription of opioids caused iatrogenic addiction.

 Few pain patients intended to become addicted. Some addicted people blame their doctors for causing their opioid addiction, but most doctors were conscientiously trying to treat the pain reported by their patient, and the pain management experts had told these doctors the risk of addiction was so low they didn’t have to worry about it.

Certainly many patients made bad choices to misuse their medications, either from curiosity or peer influence, pushing them farther over the line into addiction. Patients need to recognize their own contribution to their addiction. But with opioid addiction, as the disease progresses, the addict loses the power of choice that he once had. If the addict is fortunate enough to have a moment of clarity, before the disease progresses too far, he may be able to stop on his own, without treatment.

 By their very nature, opioids produce pleasure. Any time doctors prescribe something that causes pleasure, we should expect addiction to occur. Some people, for whatever reason, feel more pleasure than others when they take opioids, and seem to be at higher risk for addiction. As discussed in previous chapters, genetics, environment, and individual factors all influence this risk.

Opioids treat pain – both physical and emotional. Many of the neuronal pathways in the brain for sensing and experiencing pain are the same for both physical and psychological pain. For example, the brain pathways activated when you drop a hammer on your toe are much the same as when you have to tell your spouse you spent the rent money while gambling. Opioids make both types of pain better. Chronic pain patients with psychological illnesses are at increased risk for inappropriate use of their pain medications.

 In a recent study, the rate of developing true opioid addiction in patients taking opioids for chronic pain was found to be increased fourfold over the risk of non-medicated people. (2) Instead of a one percent incidence, as estimated by pain medicine specialists in the past, it now appears eighteen to forty-five percent of patients maintained long-term on opioids develop true addiction, not mere physical dependency. (3) If this information had been available in the late 1990’s, doctors may have taken more precautions when they prescribed strong opioids for chronic pain.

 Researchers have identified the risk factors for addiction among patients who take opioids long-term (more than three months) for chronic pain. Studies now show that a personal past history of addiction is the strongest predictor of future problems with addiction, as would be expected.  A patient with a family history of addiction is also at increased risk for addiction, as are patients with psychiatric illness of any kind, and younger patients. (4)

However, at the height of the pain control movement, there were no good studies of the addiction risk when opioids were used for more than three months. The little information that did exist was misused, resulting in an incredible underestimation of the risk of addiction in patients with chronic pain, who were treated with opioid medications for more than three months.

 With the momentum of the movement for better control of pain, both acute and chronic, the number of prescriptions for opioid pain pills increased dramatically. In the years from 1997 through 2006, prescription sales of hydrocodone increased 244%, while oxycodone increased 732% during that same time period. Prescription sales for methadone increased a staggering 1177%. (5)

It’s not just patients who are at risk for abuse and addiction. The increased amount of opioids being prescribed meant there was more opioid available to be diverted to the black market. When an addicting drug is made more available, it will be misused more often.

  1. Porter and Jick, New England Journal of Medicine, 302 (2) (Jan. 10, 1980) p. 123.
  2. Michael F. Fleming, Stacey L. Balousek, Cynthia L. Klessig, et al. “Substance Use Disorders in a Primary Care Sample Receiving Daily Opioid Therapy,” Journal of Pain, 207; Vol. 8, issue 7: 573-582.
  3. 7. Steven Passik M.D., Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, Vol. 21 No. 5, (May 2001), pp.359 – 360.
  4. Chou, R, Fanciullo, G, Fine, P, et. al., “Opioid Treatment Guidelines: Clinical guidelines for the use of Chronic Opioid Therapy in chronic, non-cancer pain.” The Journal of Pain, 2009, Vol. 10, No. 2. pp. 113-130

5. Andrea Trescott, MD, Stanford Helm, MD, el. al., “Opioids in the Management of Chronic Non-cancer Pain: An Update of American Society of the Interventional Pain Physicians’ Guidelines,” Pain Physician 2008: Opioids Special Issue: 11:S5 – S 62.

Tennessee, the State of Malignant Denial


For the last ten years, local officials in the small towns of Eastern Tennessee have been denying the presence of opioid addiction in their midst. Ironically, as the map shows, Eastern Tennessee has one of the very highest rates of opioid addiction in all of the U.S.

National Survey of Drug Use and Health


Over the last ten years, various treatment centers, wanting to treat these addicts with methadone and/or buprenorphine programs, have tried to open in this area. In a show of NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), town officials vote for zoning changes meant to make it essentially impossible to get approval to open such clinics. Tennessee officials say it will bring drug addicts to the area.

From the Kingsport, Tennessee Times-News, 3/18/09,

“The Church Hill Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously approved the first reading Tuesday of an ordinance which, in essence, makes it almost impossible for a methadone clinic to locate within the city limits.

Earlier this month, the Planning Commission recommended the ordinance, which restricts methadone clinics and drug treatment facilities to areas of the city that are zoned M-1 (manufacturing). Without the ordinance, methadone clinics and drug treatment facilities would be permitted in any area of the city zoned to allow medical uses.”

“I think we’re all in the consensus that we don’t want it anywhere,” the alderman said (name deleted).

Similar laws have been passed in Johnson City, Tennessee.

So what happens to untreated pain pill addicts?

There aren’t any studies following pain pill addicts long-term, but we do have studies of heroin addicts.

They die.

Methadone maintenance has been shown to reduce death rates by factors ranging from three fold to sixty-three fold. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

In one study, heroin addicts enrolled in methadone treatment were one-quarter as likely to die by heroin overdose or suicide as were heroin addicts not in methadone treatment. This study followed 296 heroin addicts for more than 15 years. In another study, a group of heroin addicts were followed over twenty years. One-third died within that time. Of the survivors, 48% were enrolled in a methadone program for treatment. The authors of the study concluded that heroin addiction is a chronic disease with a high fatality rate, and that methadone maintenance offered a significant benefit.

We suspect, but don’t know for sure, that pain pill addicts will have similar rates of death, since both groups are addicted to opioids. Studies are being done now, following pain pill addicts to see if their outcome will be similar to heroin addicts.

The young addicts of Eastern Tennessee are paying a heavy price for the denial of local officials.

  1. Caplehorn JR, Dalton MS, et. al., Methadone maintenance and addicts’ risk of fatal heroin overdose. Substance Use and Misuse, 1996 Jan, 31(2):177-196. In this study of heroin addicts, the addicts in methadone treatment were one-quarter as likely to die by heroin overdose or suicide. This study followed two hundred and ninety-six methadone heroin addicts for more than fifteen years.
  2. Clausen T, Waal H, Thoresen M, Gossop M; Mortality among opiate users: opioid maintenance therapy, age and causes of death. Addiction 2009; 104(8) 1356-62. This study looked at the causes of death for opioid addicts admitted to opioid maintenance therapy in Norway from 1997-2003. The authors found high rates of overdose deaths both prior to admission and after leaving treatment. Older patients retained in treatment died from medical reasons, other than overdose.
  3.  Goldstein A, Herrera J, Heroin addicts and methadone treatment in Albuquerque: a year follow-up. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 1995 Dec; 40 (2): p. 139-150. A group of heroin addicts were followed over twenty years. One-third died within that time, and of the survivors, 48% were on a methadone maintenance program. The author concluded that heroin addiction is a chronic disease with a high fatality rate, and methadone maintenance offered a significant benefit.
  4. Gronbladh L, Ohlund LS, Gunne LM, Mortality in heroin addiction: Impact of methadone treatment, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica Volume 82 (3) p. 223-227. Treatment of heroin addicts with methadone maintenance resulted in a significant drop in mortality, compared to untreated heroin addicts. Untreated addicts had a death rate 63 times expected for their age and gender; heroin addicts maintained on methadone had a death rate of 8 times expected, and most of that mortality was from diseases acquired prior to treatment with methadone.
  5. Scherbaum N, Specka M,, Does maintenance treatment reduce the mortality rate of opioid addicts? Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr, 2002, 70(9):455-461. Opioid addicts in continuous treatment with methadone had a much lower mortality rate (1.6% per year) than opioid addicts who left treatment (8.1% per year).
  6. Zanis D, Woody G; One-year mortality rates following methadone treatment discharge. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 1998: vol.52 (3) 257-260. Five hundred and seven patients in a methadone maintenance program were followed for one year. In that time, 110 patients were discharged and were not in treatment anywhere. Of these patients, 8.2% were dead, mostly from heroin overdose. Of the patients retained in treatment, only 1% died. The authors conclude that even if patients enrolled in methadone maintenance treatment have a less-than-desired response to treatment, given the high death rate for heroin addicts not in treatment, these addicts should not be kicked out of the methadone clinic.

The New OxyContin Formulation

Over the last three weeks, at least five of the opioid addicts I’ve admitted to treatment said they wanted help because they couldn’t abuse the new form of OxyContin.

 And I say: Hallelujah! It’s about time!!

 This new tablet, approved by the FDA in April of this year, appeared recently on the black markets of this area, replacing the older, more easily abused OxyContin. The new tablet is bioequivalent to the older tablet, meaning the same amount of oxycodone, the active ingredient, is available to the body when swallowed whole, as it’s meant to be. In other words, the same amount of pain reliever is given to the body. However, it’s more difficult to crush for the purpose of snorting or injecting, because it turns into a gummy ball.

Purdue Pharma, the drug company that makes OxyContin, admits this new formulation isn’t abuse-proof, but hopes it will be more resistant to abuse.

The patients I’ve talked to say the new tablet is a big disappointment. One patient, who usually chews her pill to get a faster high, said it was like trying to chew a jelly bean. Other patients said they could crush the tablet, but got a kind of gelatinous mess that was impossible to snort or inject.

 For pain relief, the opioid in OxyContin lasts much longer when it’s taken as directed and swallowed whole. Addicts prefer to crush and snort or inject because of the quick high they feel with this route of administration. But when used in this way, it leaves the body faster, and the addict usually needs to find more opioid within six to eight hours to avoid withdrawal.

Before I applaud Purdue Pharma for this change, my cynical mind asks a few questions: Why didn’t the company make this change earlier?

In 2002, a Purdue Pharma representative testified before congress, saying that the company was working on a re-formulation of OxyContin, to make it harder to use intravenously. This representative said they expected to have the re-formulated pill on the market within a few years. (1)  But it took eight more years.

Sterling, the drug company that makes Talwin, another opioid pain medication, was able to re-formulate their drug within a few years when they discovered it was being abused frequently. This was in the 1980s, when, presumably, medication technology wasn’t as advanced as today. Sterling added naloxone, an opioid blocker that’s inactive when taken by mouth, but puts an addict into withdrawal when it’s crushed and injected. It worked great. Talwin isn’t a commonly abused drug.

 I’m assuming that Purdue Pharma holds the patent for this new formulation that makes their tablet gummy when crushed. Purdue probably teaches its sales staff to market the new OxyContin as a safer option than older versions, perhaps available in cheaper generics. So did they wait to re-formulate until their patent was ready to expire? I don’t know, but time will tell.

At any rate, this drug is now just a little bit safer, for now. People with addictions are often clever and creative. I won’t be surprised if soon there’s a way to defeat this new technology.

Just think what addicted people could do, if they directed their talent and intelligence in ways that would help and not hurt them. There would be no stopping them.

1. United States Senate. Congressional hearing of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on Examining the Effects of the Painkiller OxyContin, 107th Congress, Second Session, February, 2002.

The Narcotic Farm: A Bit of History

We don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel.

We can investigate the success rates of addiction treatment methods used over the past century, see what worked, and what didn’t work. We can use programs of proven benefit or we can continue to spend money on programs repeatedly shown to have little benefit.

From 1935 until 1962, drug addicts were treated at a unique facility, part jail and part treatment hospital. Initially named the United States Narcotic Farm, it was later changed to the U.S. Public Health Service Narcotics Hospital. Even after this name change, most people still called it the Narcotic Farm.

This facility was located on twelve acres of Kentucky farmland. The facility was created by the Public Health Service and the Bureau of Prisons, meant to serve a dual purpose. It was a treatment hospital, where drug addicts could voluntarily be admitted for treatment of their addiction, and it was also a federal prison, where drug offenders were sent to serve their sentences. About two thirds of the inpatients were prisoners and the other third were addicts, voluntarily seeking help for opioid addiction. Both types of patients were treated side by side. For over forty years, it was the main drug addiction treatment center in the United States, along with a similar facility in Ft. Worth, Texas, which opened in 1937.

            The Narcotic Farm was a massive institution for its time. It had fifteen-hundred beds, and housed tens of thousands of patients over its forty years of operation. It was located in a rural area of Kentucky, which gave it space for numerous operations to engage the prisoners – now called patients – in all types of job training. (1)

             The Narcotic Farm really was a farm. Besides growing many types of vegetables, there was a working dairy, and livestock including pigs and chickens. These operations provided food for the patients and staff of the facility and provided work for the patients. The patients provided the labor to keep the farm going and it was hoped they would simultaneously learn useful trades. In addition to farming, they learned skills in sewing, auto repair, carpentry, and other trades. Besides teaching new job skills, it was hoped that fresh air, sunshine, and wholesome work would be beneficial to the addicts. (1)

            For its time, the Narcotic Farm was surprisingly progressive in its willingness to try multiple new treatments. For the forty years it operated, many different treatments were tried for opioid addicts. It offered individual and group talk therapies, job training, psychiatric analysis, treatment for physical medical issues, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, art therapy, shock therapy, music therapy, and even hydrotherapy, with flow baths to soothe the nerves. Despite these options, the Farm apparently retained many of the characteristics of a prison, with barred windows and strict security procedures. (1)

             The Narcotic Farm had its own research division, the Addiction Research Center (ARC), which became the forerunner of today’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The Narcotic Farm did pioneering work, using methadone to assist patients through withdrawal, and helped establish the doses used to treat opioid addiction. Methadone was used only short term, for the management of withdrawal symptoms, and not for maintenance dosing at the Narcotic Farm. The Farm also trained a dedicated group of doctors and nurses, who were pioneers in the field of addiction treatment. It provided new information on the nature of addiction.

             Admission to the Narcotic Farm allowed an opioid addict some time to go through opioid withdrawal, eat regular meals, work in one of the farm’s many industries, and have some form of counseling. However, after leaving the hospital, the addicts were entirely released from care and supervision, with no assistance to help re-enter their communities. Most times, they returned to their same living situation and old circumstances encouraged relapse back to drug use and addiction. As a result, two follow up studies of the addicts treated at the Narcotic Farm showed a ninety-three percent and ninety-seven percent relapse rate within six months, with most of the relapses occurring almost immediately upon returning home. Many addicts cycled through the Public Health Hospital multiple times. (1)       

            The Narcotic Farm was eventually turned over to the Bureau of Prisons in 1974, as the treatment for addiction was de-centralized. Since the studies found high relapse rates for addicts returning to their previous communities, it was hoped by moving treatment centers into communities, these addicts could have ongoing support after they left inpatient treatment.

  1. Nancy P. Campbell, The Narcotic Farm: The rise and fall of America’s first prison for drug addicts, (New York, Abrams, 2008)


This is an excerpt from my new book, “Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope.” 

Available at

 and on Amazon and Ebay

and many bookstores

Bibliotherapy: Books About the History of Addiction and Treatment

Great books about the history of addiction and its treatment have languished in obscurity, never getting the recognition that these bits of history richly deserve.  I’m going to do my small part to encourage people to read these great books.

 The Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America, 1923-1965, by Courtwright, Joseph, and Des Jarlais. This book, published by the University of Tennessee Press in 1989, is now out of print, so hopefully you can find a copy at your library. I’m so glad I bought one of the few copies. This amazing book is filled with interviews with intravenous heroin addicts who lived through the so called “classic era” of opioid addiction. I got a feel for how fragile life is for IV addicts, and how miraculous it is to survive addiction for 30 years. Many of the survivors went into methadone programs, and credit methadone with saving their lives. Other addicts went on methadone, but are frank about their criticisms of methadone treatment, and their regrets. As an added bonus, this book has interviews with key people who made history during the classic era of opioid addiction in the U.S.: Vincent Dole, M.D., one of the three original investigators of the efficacy of methadone maintenance as a treatment. Dr. Dole describes the harassment and interference he experienced during his work, both from law enforcement and the medical community.

 The Fix, by Michael Massing.  There’s much great history in this book. Much of the book talks about the governmental decisions regarding the treatment of addiction and addicts. The author describes effective treatments for addiction which weren’t continued, because of political pressures. It also describes how policies that didn’t work nonetheless remained in practice because of politics. This book gives us insight into dealing with the present wave of pain pill addiction. If you have to read one book on the history of addiction treatment in the U.S., make it this one. It’s interesting because the author also includes stories of real-life addicts and their struggles to find treatment and recover.

 The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, by David Musto. This may be the best-known book about the history of opioid addiction and treatment in the U.S. The author gives exhaustive references, valuable in their own right. This book may be dense reading for anyone not already interested in the topic, but I loved it. He gives a painstaking history of drug addiction against the background of American culture and politics. Anyone who has input into drug policies needs to read this book.

Dark Paradise: A History of Opioid Addiction in America, by David Courtwright. Much like The American Disease, it is packed full of information, along with insights and interpretation of the information. It covers much of the same information as the other book. It differs in the interpretation of opioid addiction history.

 Hooked: Five Addicts Challenge our Misguided Drug Rehab System, by Lonnie Shavelson. The author, a physician and journalist, follows five addicts with no money through the process of accessing addiction treatment. He documents in excruciating detail the pitiful systems called “treatment” for these addicts. Gaps in care and communication breakdowns would frustrate anyone, but these people are more fragile than most. The roadblocks they face are depressing. This is a fascinating and entertaining book, and left me with a feeling of frustration. It’s a vivid description of how broken our healthcare system is for the indigent.

Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, by William White. Written in 1998, this book has it all. It’s probably the most comprehensive book about the history of addiction treatments. Even if you don’t work in the field, you’ll think the book is interesting. It’s a well-written and scholarly book.  Particularly interesting was the descriptions of quack cures for addiction promoted throughout the ages. Some things never change. People desperate and suffering from a disease are vulnerable to different species of snake oil treatments now, as ever in history.

Addiction: from Biology to Drug Policy, by Avram Mack. Written nearly 10 years ago, parts of this might be a little out of date, but it’s still packed with information. It covers technical material, but is accessible to the educated layperson. He has some interesting stories to illustrate his meanings.

 The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts, by Nancy Campbell, 2008. In this little-known book, the author explains how drug addiction was treated from 1935 until 1975. The Narcotic Farm was a unique facility that served both voluntary patients and prisoners who had addiction. For its time, the Farm was moderately open-minded and willing to try new treatments. Sadly, most of the addicts treated to the Farm relapsed, probably because they had no continuing treatment when the addicts returned home. The pictures in the book are great, and tell much of the story of the Narcotic Farm.

We need these books. We don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel because we can look to the past for guidance about the treatment of the addicts in this country. Our past method of incarcerating addicts clearly did not, is not, working. Public policy makers all over the country at all levels of government need to read these books.

If you know of more such books, tell me.

Why are so many people addicted to prescription pain pills?

I was reading a great blog I’ve started visiting, and came across an entry about why the U.S. has more pain pill addicts now than 10 years ago.

I couldn’t resist blathering on,  commenting on the blog. I wrote so much the software thought I was spamming. So I thought I’d repeat my comments here, on my blog.

This is an important issue. We now have an estimated 1.7 to 2 million people addicted to prescription pain pills. Many of the conditions that contributed to this wave of addiction have been changed – but not all.

Prescription opioid addiction has increased dramatically over the last decade, due to a combination of factors. First, there was the pain management movement, which emphasized the importance of adequate pain control. Of course that’s an admirable goal, but the risks of addiction were understated due to bad science and misinterpretation of limited data. Instead of a risk of addiction of about 1%, quoted by many pain management gurus, the true incidence is more like 10 – 45%, depending on which study you read.

Then against that backdrop, OxyContin was released and marketed to general practitioners and family docs with limited knowledge about how to identify and treat addiction. In general, medical schools and residencies have done a lousy job of educating doctors about proper prescribing of opioid medications, how to identify addiction, and where to refer people for treatment of their addiction.

 Then there was access to opioids via the internet, which actually seemed to be a bigger problem than it was. A small percentage of abused opioids came from the internet, but some people became addicted in that way. With the changing laws, these rogue internet pharmacies are less numerous.

States most heavily afflicted by pain pill addiction didn’t have prescription monitoring programs in place. These programs are essential tools to identify people who are getting pills from more than one doctor at a time, called “doctor shopping,” which is often an indication the person has an addiction that needs treatment. Fortunately, most states either have these programs now or are in the process of putting them into place.

But a big part of the problem is cultural. We share prescription medications, even controlled substances, with alarming frequency. Most people aged 18 – 24 who use pain pills nonmedically get them from friends or family, not from some nefarious dealer on the corner. Adolescents don’t realize how dangerous prescription pain pills are.

Anyone with pain pills in their medicine cabinet needs to lock them up to keep them safe, or dispose of medication when they are no longer needed. And we need to stop sharing our medications. It’s illegal, dangerous, and contributes to addiction.

Excerpt from my upcoming book: Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope

 One doctor makes work for another.  ~English Proverb

 The increase in opioid addiction coincided not only with the movement toward aggressive treatment of chronic pain with opioids, but also with the release of OxyContin by its manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, in 1996. Their other drug for pain, MS Contin, had become well-established in the treatment of severe cancer pain, but this drug was due to come off patent. This meant the other drug companies could then manufacture and sell a generic version of the same drug at a cheaper price. Purdue obviously wanted physicians to switch to their new drug, still under their patent, to maintain their share of this market.

 OxyContin was marketed aggressively to small town family doctors who didn’t have much experience treating chronic pain with powerful opioids, or with identifying and treating pain pill addiction. In rural areas, family doctors had few places they could refer patients who developed problems with their opioid pain medications.  (1)

 The drug company marketed OxyContin as an appropriate treatment for chronic, moderate to severe, non-cancer pain. In the past, such strong opioids were used only for intractable, severe pain. OxyContin was marketed as the pain medicine to “start with and stay with.” OxyContin was even prescribed for such ailments as menstrual cramps, oddly mirroring the misuse of opioids like laudanum and morphine a century earlier.

 Purdue Pharma believed OxyContin was tamper-resistant and less likely to be abused, due to its time release coating. The drug company was still touting this as a selling point in 2001, when addiction medicine doctors all over the country were seeing hundreds of OxyContin addicts. These addicts described how easy it was to moisten the pill, crush it, snort it, inject it, or just file off the coating and chew it.

 Purdue Pharma didn’t do pre-release testing of their new drug, to assess its desirability to addicts seeking to get high. At first, they didn’t have a post-market release system to monitor for signs of abuse and diversion, as other companies have done.  In fact, Purdue Pharma seemed to go out of their way to ignore early warnings and complaints about the drug. Doctors, who tried to warn the drug company about the patients they were seeing who were addicted to OxyContin, were ignored and discounted. (1)

 Purdue Pharma trained its sales representatives to make deceptive statements. Besides telling doctors that the drug was less likely to be abused, the sales representatives also gave false information about the risks of opioid withdrawal after stopping the pill. (2)

 OxyContin became such a commonly known drug to both abusers and the media that the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) asked for a report about the promotion of OxyContin by Purdue Pharma, information on factors affecting its abuse and diversion, and recommendations of how to curtail its misuse. This report, released in 2003, stated that by 2001, the sales of OxyContin were over 1 billion dollars per year, making it the most commonly prescribed brand of opioid medication for moderate to severe pain. (2)

 By 2002, prescriptions written for OxyContin for non-cancer pain constituted eighty-five percent of its total sales. The type of non-cancer pain for which it was prescribed included both acute pain, like kidney stones, broken bones, and post-operative pain, and chronic pain like arthritis and fibromyalgia. By 2003, primary care doctors, with little or no experience or training in the treatment of long-term pain, were prescribing about half of all the OxyContin prescriptions written in the country. By 2003, the FDA had cited Purdue Pharma twice, for using misleading information in its promotional advertisements to these doctors. (2)

 The GAO’s report recognized the unique timing of the release of OxyContin. “Fortuitous timing may have contributed to this growth, as the launching of the drug occurred during the national focus on the inadequacy of patient pain treatment and management.” (2, Page 9)

 Purdue Pharma could have re-formulated their pill, to reduce the risk of abuse and addiction. Sterling Drug, manufacturer of the pain medication Talwin, re-formulated their medication, to make it less likely to be abused. The active drug in Talwin is pentazocine, an opioid that had a brief rise in abuse when it was first released in the 1980s. To prevent intravenous injection of their drug, Sterling re-formulated Talwin within a year, adding naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids. This is the same medication used by doctors to treat opioid overdoses. Naloxone is not absorbed when taken by mouth, because it is inactivated by stomach acid. But when the pentazocine/naloxone pill is ground and injected, it puts addicts into immediate withdrawal, thus making it a much less desirable drug for intravenous addicts. This action by Sterling curtailed the abuse of Talwin/NX, their new product.

 Other manufacturers have taken different precautions, when concerned about the abuse of a prescription drug. For example, the drug Rohypnol, commonly called the date rape drug, is illegal in the U.S., but is legally prescribed in Europe and Latin America. Because they were concerned that the drug was being used illicitly, to facilitate rapes, the manufacturer, Hoffman-LaRoche, re-formulated Rohypnol so that instead of being clear, colorless and tasteless, it becomes milky white when added to any other liquid. This can warn unsuspecting people that something has been added to their drink.

 A Purdue Pharma representative testified before congress in 2002, saying that the company was working on a re-formulation of OxyContin, to make it harder to use intravenously, and that they expected to have the re-formulated pill on the market within a few years. (3)  Eight years later, there still is no such re-formulation of OxyContin. Purdue Pharma said it would take three or four years to reformulate the drug, though Sterling, with Talwin, managed to accomplish this within a year, more than a decade earlier.

 In May of 2007, three officers of Purdue Pharma, a privately held company, pled guilty to misleading the public about the drug’s safety. Their chief executive officer, general counsel, and chief scientific officer pled guilty, as individuals, to misbranding a pharmaceutical. The executives did not serve jail time. Though they plead guilty, they claimed they personally had done nothing wrong, but accepted blame under the premise that an executive is responsible for the acts of the employees working under him. (4) The three executives’ fines totaled 34.5 million dollars, to be paid to Virginia, the state that brought the lawsuit.

 The Purdue Pharma company agreed to pay a fine of $600 million. Though this is one of the largest amounts paid by a drug company for illegal marketing, Purdue made 2.8 billion dollars in sales revenue, from the time of its release in 1996 until 2001 alone.

 To be fair, the drug company and addiction specialists had data that showed the most common opioid to be abused is actually hydrocodone, a short acting opioid, often marketed under the brand names of Vicodin or Lortab. While this is technically correct, the strength of a single hydrocodone pill is usually 5, 7.5, or 10 mg, while OxyContin came in 10, 20, 40, 80, and, for a brief time, 160mg. In addition, hydrocodone is slightly weaker, milligram per milligram, than oxycodone. In other words, the opioid firepower in one OxyContin is much higher than in one hydrocodone, so they are hardly comparable. An addict would need more than eight hydrocodone 5mg pills to equal one OxyContin 40mg.

 This much opioid, packed into one pill, produces a powerful high when it’s released all at once, as it is when the time release coating is removed. Many patients I’ve talked to have said they knew OxyContin would cause problems from the first use. “After that first high, I knew I would keep using. I wanted that feeling,” is an example of a typical quote.

 Since the debacle of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma has donated money towards helping communities treat opioid addicts, and has paid money as ordered by the court. Much of the $600 million award will go to states heavily afflicted by OxyContin addiction. This money will help to establish programs to help prevent and treat opioid addiction.

 OxyContin isn’t a bad or evil drug. It’s just a drug, capable giving great benefit and relief of suffering to those people in serious pain. And it’s also capable of being misused, and can cause great suffering and even death, if not used in the right way.

 1. Barry Meier, Pain Killer: A “Wonder” Drug’s Trail of Addiction and Death (Rodale Books, 2003)

2. General Accounting Office OxyContin Abuse and Diversion report GAO-04-110, 2003.

3. United States Senate. Congressional hearing of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on Examining the Effects of the Painkiller OxyContin, 107th Congress, Second Session, February, 2002.

4. Washington Times, “Company Admits Painkiller Deceit,” May 11, 2007, accessed online at on 12/18/2008.

More Information about Buprenorphine

Buprenorphine, commonly known by the brand name Suboxone, is an exciting new option for opioid addicts seeking help, and for the doctors who treat them. For the first time in nearly one hundred years, people with the disease of opioid addiction can be treated in the privacy of a doctor’s office. Addicts no longer have to go to special clinics to get medication for their disease. Since many opioid addicts don’t live near a methadone clinic, or live near a methadone clinic that has a six month wait for admission, or wouldn’t be caught dead in a methadone clinic due to the stigma, buprenorphine is a fresh option.

Congress passed the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 in order to allow the treatment of opioid addiction in office-based practices, instead of the more cumbersome methadone clinics. In 2002, the FDA approved buprenorphine as the first schedule III controlled drug that could be used under the DATA 2000 Act. The drug became available in pharmacies in 2003. Thus far, buprenorphine is the only medication that’s approved by the FDA to treat opioid addiction in a doctor’s private office.

 The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Harrison Drug Act of 1914 made it illegal for physicians to prescribe opioids from an office setting for the treatment of opioid addiction, and it remained illegal until DATA 2000 was passed. DATA 2000 was therefore quite remarkable for the change of attitude it showed on the part of government policy makers. It showed an open mindedness rare in the history of addiction treatment in the U. S.  For the first time in more than eighty years, the government was not only granting permission for appropriately trained and licensed office-based doctors to prescribe controlled substances to treat opioid addiction, but they were actually encouraging it. However, buprenorphine still has special restrictions on its use.     

  In order to prescribe buprenorphine to treat addiction, a physician must have a special DEA number, called an “X” number. To get that number, the physician must attend an eight hour training course to learn about opioid addiction and its treatment with buprenorphine. After a doctor is qualified by training, she can then apply to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for a waiver from the regulations of the Controlled Substances Act. If granted, this means the physician doesn’t have to meet all of the conditions and regulations of traditional opioid addiction treatment centers (methadone clinics).

 The doctor must certify she has the capacity to refer patients for counseling in addition to prescribing buprenorphine, and cannot treat any more than thirty patients at any one time. After SAMHSA grants the waiver, the DEA gives the doctor a special DEA number, to be used only for patients who are being treated for addiction. After one year, the doctor may apply for permission to treat up to one hundred patients at any given time.

 By September of 2009, nearly 24,000 physicians were trained to prescribe buprenorphine, but only around 19,000 of these doctors applied and received their DEA number to prescribe buprenorphine. Only 3,685 doctors applied for permission to treat up to one hundred patients. By 2009, around 500,000 patients were receiving buprenorphine prescriptions. (1) About twenty-seven percent have been on tapering detoxification schedules and the rest, seventy-three percent, have been on a maintenance schedule. (2)

Recently, there has been a trend toward using buprenorphine as a maintenance medication, rather than for a relatively quick detoxification, as studies are showing greater benefit with longer use. One large study being performed specifically on prescription opioid addicts showed very high relapse rates (96%) if buprenoephine is tapered after only four months of fairly intense counseling. (3) As this study procedes, we’ll get more information about what duration of treatment is ideal with buprenorphine.

  Just as with methadone, the medication alone rarely is enough to get the patient into successful long term recovery. Buprenorphine is not meant to be a stand-alone treatment, but must be combined with some sort of counseling. According to the government regulations, the prescribing physician must have the capability to refer the patient for counseling, though it doesn’t specify the type or intensity of the counseling.

 Buprenorphine is an opioid. If it’s stopped suddenly, a typical opioid withdrawal will begin within several days. Addicts (and their doctors and families) want a pill that cures opioid addiction, but has no withdrawal symptoms if stopped, but that’s not how this medication works.

 Buprenorphine treats the physical symptoms for as long as the drug is taken, and reduces mental obsession for opioids. Most patients say buprenorphine withdrawal is somewhat milder than withdrawal from other opioids, but a small number say it’s worse. A few patients have said they felt no withdrawal after stopping it. If a patient wishes to be taken off buprenorphine, the dose should be reduced gradually, as some patients tolerate a faster taper than others. Patients appear to vary widely in their ability to tolerate buprenorphine taper.

 Buprenorphine works because of its unique pharmacology. Buprenorphine, like methadone, is a long-acting opioid. This means both drugs prevent withdrawal for at least twenty-four hours, which makes them ideal to use as opioid replacement medications.

 Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist. This means that while it activates the opioid receptors in the body, it does so less vigorously than full agonists like morphine, methadone, or oxycodone. People usually experience it as an opioid, but in those already addicted to opioids, it doesn’t cause a high or euphoria. If someone has never taken opioids, buprenorphine will cause a high, but tolerance develops quickly to that effect.

 Buprenorphine has great affinity for the opioid receptors, which means it sticks to them like glue. If any other opioids are in the body, buprenorphine will kick them off the opioid receptors. Because it’s a weaker opioid, this can put the patient into relative withdrawal. Therefore, to start buprenorphine successfully, it’s important for the patient to be in at least moderate opioid withdrawal. This is very important, for if an opioid addict takes buprenorphine while he is taking another opioid, he will suddenly feel terrible, and have what is called precipitated withdrawal, the sudden onset of opioid withdrawal symptoms. Most addicts want to avoid that awful feeling at all costs. Some physicians, not knowing about the need to be in withdrawal before starting this medication, have put their patients into precipitated withdrawal by starting Suboxone too early.

To Be Continued

  1. Clark, H. Westley, M.D., J.D., MPH, CAS, FASAM, Director of Center for Substance Abuse Treatment and Mental Health Services Administration, Keynote address, component Session 6,  American Society of Addiction Medicine’s Course on the State of the Art in Addiction Medicine, Washington, D.C., October 24, 2009
  2. John Renner, MD, “Educational Status Report” lecture at American Society of Addiction Medicine, component session IV 905, New Orleans, LA, May 1, 2009.
  3. Weiss, R, information from National Drug Abuse Treatment Clinical Trials Network Prescription Opioid Addiction Treatment Study, presented at the American Paychiatric Association Annual Meeting,  May 2010 New Orleans, LA

A little bit of history

Until the early twentieth century, physicians had few effective medications to treat diseases, so they tended to overuse opioids. Even if no cures were produced, the patient felt better. Those physicians who freely prescribed opioids were more popular than their more cautious colleagues with parsimonious prescribing habits. However, opium products, as well as marijuana and cocaine, could be obtained without a prescription at the local druggist’s.
In addition to their legitimate use, for the treatment of pain, cough, and diarrhea, opioids were also used to treat nervous conditions of all sorts, asthma, gynecological disorders, skin rashes, hiccups, and masturbation. The drugs were of questionable or of no value for such disorders, and exposed those patients to the risk of addiction.

Morphine, named for Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, was first produced commercially in 1827, and soon was used for many painful conditions. Like the original opioids, morphine products could be purchased without a prescription, in the patent medicines of that era. Commercial morphine was a breakthrough because it had a higher potency than previously available opioids, and came in pill form, in predictable doses. When the hypodermic was invented, around the time of the Civil War, it was an ideal drug, as injections of morphine provided quick pain relief for injured soldiers. Civil War veterans were given morphine for relatively long periods of time. The public thought so many Civil War veterans were addicted to opioids that it was called, “the soldiers’ disease.”
In reality, the middle and upper classes, especially women, had the highest addiction rate of any demographic group in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Women went to doctors more frequently than men, especially if they could afford to do so. Many of these women were diagnosed with “nervous ailments,” requiring opioids. Opioids did relieve anxiety, temporarily, but carried the risk of opioid addiction. Here we see the beginnings of iatrogenic (caused by a doctor or medical treatment prescribed by a doctor) addiction.
By the turn of the century, the average addict was a middle aged, middle class white female, found in greatest relative numbers in the South. This group of addicts was nearly inconspicuous, as they quietly continued their opioid addictions in the home, with over the counter, prescription, or patent medications containing opioids.
Chinese immigrants brought the habit of smoking opium with them, as they emigrated to the United States. Since these young immigrant males were of the lower social status, their addiction was viewed with alarm and disgust, while the war veterans and middle class female addicts were viewed with more compassion for their plight. The latter groups were perceived as more sympathetic, because they developed the disease of opioid addiction from medication prescribed by a doctor, and not through their own fault.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, patent medicines affected opioid addiction rates. Prior to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, in 1906, manufacturers of non-prescription tonics or elixirs could legally include addictive substances into their potions, without disclosing the contents. Many Americans unknowingly took patent medications containing opioids, usually either morphine or opium. Some patent medications also contained alcohol and cocaine, which made them understandably popular. As a result, people using patent medicines developed addictions. The poor, less able to afford a visit to the doctor, were more likely to use, and become addicted to, these patent medicines.

…to be continued…