October 25, 2014
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Time for a common sense drug policy
Robert Houghtaling

The recent spike in overdose deaths caused by heroin has captured the attention of parents, health professionals, law enforcement, many in politics and the media. Already, significant efforts are being made to create awareness, intervene (by dispensing Narcan) and the crafting of legislation. Despite the fact that these efforts are laudable and necessary they still leave us with the unresolved root causes behind this tragic situation. Until this is addressed we will be performing perpetual triage for an epidemic that is taking lives and spreading at an alarming rate.

While Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death gained national attention, health officials in Rhode Island report that there have been more than 40 heroin overdose deaths so far this year. It is also reported that many of those who died did so after using heroin that was mixed with Fentanyl (an extremely dangerous mixture). At the current rate, I am hearing that hundreds of Rhode Islanders will die this year due to overdosing on heroin. Sadly, this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

I have asserted, for some time now, that we have created a drug for every occasion attitude. In the past, a few of my articles sarcastically insinuated that pharmaceutical companies had a division that made up illnesses to match already developed medications. Even though this might not be true I do have a sense of trepidation due to the proliferation of scripts written for Adderall, pain meds (especially those in the opioid class) and anti-anxiety drugs. While performing wonders – uncontrolled marketing and the overuse of some of these medications should make us wonder. Follow the money.

A recent article in the USA Today detailed that since 2009, 15 major drug companies paid $2.1 billion to thousands of doctors to advocate for their products. In addition, 22 doctors were paid more than $500,000 each. Again, many of these medications, when used appropriately, can produce excellent results. The term here is used appropriately.

Much of the present heroin crisis can be attributed to the rise of use and abuse of prescription medications (especially those used for pain relief). Heroin has now become the cheaper alternative for addicts desperate for a fix. We have some work to do. Part of that work has to do with looking at a culture that has created a proliferation of prescription medication use.

While we debate the legalization of marijuana (and rightfully so) a more immediate concern has exploded upon the scene. While we worry about folks smoking and selling pot, many who wear lab coats, or are termed healers are over prescribing at an alarming rate. I wonder what Hippocrates would think? I am also no fan of seeing people getting hooked on prescription meds.

Without question the vast majority of those who prescribe do so with caution. In addition, science has changed along with what constitutes therapy. This is most evident in the Mental Health fields. I merely urge that we look at the role prescription meds play in our society. We should also take a look at how drugs (inclusive of marijuana, alcohol and tobacco) impact society as well. Hopefully, we have not become accustomed to having medications perform some of the tasks we might otherwise do ourselves.

It is certainly a positive step forward for officials to initiate advocacy for Narcan availability. It is also great that we are beginning to listen to some public health officials who are ahead of the curve. This should only be the beginning of an effort to ameliorate a dangerous situation.

It appears as though we are creating a cottage industry where our actions create illnesses only to have them addressed by medications we invent. Stress and anxiety disorders abound – much of which we created by our lifestyles (schooling, overuse of technology, marketing medications, pace of life, etc.). Again, some of our medicinal discoveries are wonderful. My concerns are quite simple. We have to develop common sense drug policies in our country. The present situation is completely out of control.

Robert Houghtaling, director of the East Greenwich drug program, is a frequent contributing writer to the Warwick Beacon.


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