Harm Reduction an Alternative to Incoherent Opioid Addiction Policies

Let doctors exercise their best professional judgment and prescribe opioids-free from the chilling effects created by monitoring government agencies.


You can't pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV or radio, or access any online news source without encountering headlines screaming "opioid epidemic."

There is the alarming rise in the number of chronic pain patients who have become addicted to opioids. And the explosion, in recent years, of opioid prescriptions by health care providers now under government pressure to curtail their prescribing.

This pressure has driven many opioid addicts to the illicit drug market to avoid the pains of withdrawal. There, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they often find opioid heroin cheaper and sometimes more readily available despite a 50-year "War on Drugs." Thus they become heroin addicts.

Media hysteria begets calls to action. Politicians and the administrative state devise new laws to control this "evil plague." As a surgeon who regularly prescribes painkillers for patients suffering from postoperative pain or painful conditions, I see a painful cognitive dissonance.

Begin with US policy towards heroin. Originally developed in the 1870s, diacetyl-morphine was marketed under the brand name Heroin, by the Bayer pharmaceutical company. Despite pleas by the Surgeon General and the American Medical Association to keep it legal, Heroin was banned in the US in 1924 because political leaders believed it the drug corrupted an individual's moral character.

Meanwhile, dilaudid, 3 to 4 times more potent than morphine, is legal and is routinely administered for pain both as an oral and an injectable agent. Fentanyl, or Duragesic, is legal, too, although it is more than 50 times the potency of morphine.

There is even greater cognitive dissonance with methadone, the powerful opioid approved for use in the US in 1947 and commonly used in this country to treat addiction to heroin and other opioids.

Chronic users of opioids develop a tolerance, requiring ever-increasing doses to achieve the desired effect. A low, oral dose of methadone binds with enough of a person's opioid receptors to prevent withdrawal symptoms yet not produce the euphoric effects.

The idea behind "methadone maintenance" programs is to transfer the addiction from heroin or another opioid. Because they do not experience the euphoria and "escape" of their chosen opioid, methadone addicts can resume a normal, productive—even conventional—life. Some can be tapered off from methadone and "detoxified." But many remain on methadone, sometimes for their entire lives.

To put things in proper perspective, chronic alcohol use is much more dangerous. Chronic use can cause cirrhosis of the liver, cardiomyopathy (heart failure from damaged heart muscle), encephalopathy and dementia, chronic pancreatic inflammation, and has been linked to cancer of the stomach and the esophagus. In addition, one can overdose on alcohol as well—which may cause a person to stop breathing, become hypoxic, and die.

And here's where the cognitive dissonance comes in: it is perfectly acceptable and permissible—even public policy—to allow people to be chronically addicted to the opioid methadone. The side-effects of prolonged use are considered serious yet tolerable. But it is unacceptable and counter to public policy for a person to be chronically addicted to any other opioid, even if that person self-doses to prevent withdrawal while avoiding the "high" in order to lead a peaceful and productive life.

The concept of "harm reduction" as an approach to substance abuse has gained increased acceptance by health care practitioners as well public health and government authorities. Harm reduction approaches chemical dependency in a non-judgmental and realistic way, leaving drug prohibition in place.

The strategy seeks to ameliorate the most destructive effects of prohibition on the individual drug user and addict. The health care practitioner focuses on minimizing the addict's self-inflicted harm. Clean needle-exchange programs to prevent the spread HIV and hepatitis are a part of harm reduction.

Methadone maintenance is in its way a form of harm reduction, substituting an illegal opioid addiction with the legal and safe administration of a drug of pure and controlled quality.

Medical professionals in 1914 expressed concern that the Harrison Narcotics Act, making opioids available only by prescription from a physician, would lead to government intrusion on the patient-doctor relationship and, eventually, the micromanagement of doctors prescribing narcotics.

The surgeon general at the time assured doctors and patients that the new prescription requirement was "intended simply to gather information." Yet fine print in the law said that a doctor might prescribe these drugs "in the course of his professional practice only." The interpretation of that phrase was left up to Treasury department officials, and they later interpreted the prescribing of narcotics to an addict as not "professional practice," but rather feeding a bad habit.

Six weeks after the law took effect the New York Medical Journal editorialized against it, predicting a rise in the "…commission of crimes which will never be traced to their real cause, and the influx into hospitals for the mentally disordered of many who would otherwise lead socially competent lives."

Federal and state governments today closely watch and strictly control the prescription of opioids and seem poised to insert themselves even deeper into the patient doctor relationship.

Set aside the unintentional harm caused by an ineffective War on Drugs. Think about how many people with chronic pain conditions are either under-medicated for their pain out of a fear of opioid addiction or are driven to the streets, where they engage in much more risky behavior because state authorities pressure health care providers to cut back—or cut them off entirely—from opioids.

As a health care provider, I think current public policy should more comprehensively adopt harm reduction when it comes to America's opioid addiction problem. I think current drug policy should stop interfering with what should be an inviolable relationship between the health care practitioner and the patient.

Let doctors exercise their best professional judgment and prescribe opioids accordingly—free from the chilling effects created by monitoring government agencies. It is the responsibility of a health care provider to make certain a patient is aware of the proper use and the potential for abuse of any pain medication prescribed.

Should a doctor suspect a patient is developing a potential addiction, a frank discussion should ensue. The practitioner should offer help to the patient wanting to end the addiction. If the patient has no interest in curbing or ending use of the substance, then the prescriber should be allowed to choose to continue to prescribe it to the patient, while frequently monitoring and communicating with the patient (as professional conduct demands).

Many practitioners will, and should be able to decide that it is better for the patient to continue a controlled addiction to an opioid while maintaining an otherwise productive life than to be driven to the street and the black market. There should be no sanctioning of health care providers for using their best professional judgment in advising and treating their patients in this regard.

To facilitate this harm reduction—and to offer providers more options for treating their patients' pain—diamorphine should be reclassified by the FDA under the Controlled Substances Act from Schedule 1 (no accepted medical use—which is obviously not true), to Schedule 2 (has a medicinal use but a high potential for abuse and physical dependence), like morphine, dilaudid, methadone, and fentanyl.

Instead, politicians and bureaucrats seem bent on pressuring medical professionals to limit the opioids they prescribe, punishing them for issuing too many prescriptions, and referring patients into chemical dependency rehab programs with high recidivism rates.

And so we continue with incongruous and irrational policy. It's perfectly acceptable for a surgeon like myself to prescribe morphine for my patient's post-op pain. Or dilaudid, which is 3-4 times more potent, or fentanyl, which is at least 50 times more potent. But I cannot prescribe medical heroin. It's OK for a person to remain addicted just as long as the opioid is methadone.

There is a word to describe such an opioid policy: incoherent.

NEXT: Gorsuch Is More Liberal Than Garland

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Yes, incoherent, but this describes almost all government policy, because government exists for the sole purpose of redistributing power and money. Some statists will insist that government exists to help the people; they really mean control and guide and nudge the naive and gullible and misinformed. Some statists will insist that government redistribution is necessary to help the poor and disabled and unlucky; but they do their damnedest to prevent individuals and private organizations from doing the same, with excuses like preventing excessive salt or fat in charity food, or preventing food kitchens from taking over public parks.

    Government serves its advocates only, and not very well. But the people in power would rather have incoherent power than none. It’s a new version of being a big frog in a small pond.

    1. The reason they do their damnedest in that regard is that while people in gen’l like the idea of bums being taken care of, they don’t want it being done around & close by them.

  2. The burgeoning cabal of New Eisenhowers froths with vicious eyelids, heavy-hands, and concrete camps.

    1. You know who else had camps?

      1. The Boy Scouts?

        1. Be Prepared!

  3. Why do politicians hate people in pain?

    1. No, no, they love people in pain. That’s why they’re determined to see that people stay that way.

  4. There is the alarming rise in the number of chronic pain patients who have become addicted to opioids.
    This would indicate a public health concern, no? The rush to jail anyone who takes a pill is stupid but if there is an “alarming rise” in something, that’s not usually seen as good. I doubt many people see painkillers as something to be taken forever, except for perhaps extreme cases.

    1. This would indicate a public health concern, no?

      Broadly speaking, I suppose so. But not one that requires government action. Especially when almost all of the secondary problems associated with the problem are caused by government responses to said problem. That is to say that junkies suck because they will happily rip you off to get their fix. Which is really only necessary because of prohibition and attempts to clamp down on legal supply.

    2. If you define “public” as “aggregate” or “collective” in re health, yeah. But that equivocates on its traditional meaning that’s akin to the way “public” is used re utilities, nuisances, etc. following an economic theory of extra benefits & damages that are hard to internalize, & that therefore are handled efficiently in some collective manner, e.g. contagious diseases.

    3. The “opiod epidemic” consists of 60% 0f the 55,000 overdose deaths that had opiates in their bodies. That adds up to a 0.010% mortality. Considering many of those were a result of poly-pharmacy, alcohol could be part of the “epidemic”. Sadly we will never know how many of the doctors were running “pill mills” because of the way they are handled when the DEA attacks. It is sad that people, who were given prescriptions, thought selling them was appropriate. They created the problem we see now. But, they share the blame for the situation with the overly aggressive drug warriors, who cannot understand what it is to get one’s life back from the horror of intractable pain that robs victims’ of their lives.

      The number of chronic pain patients that become addicts might be around 1.5% (.008% in one study). That is hardly what was represented by the article. The person also does not seem to understand the idea of tolerance when it comes to opiates. The tolerance does not continually rise. The dose can be titrated, as described by Dr Russel Portenoy. it stops at a level that can stay stable in chronic pain patients for years. The dose may be very high, compared to most of us. But, that is the reason the titration of the dose occurs. EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT!!

  5. For Progressives, “My body, my choice” is only a sometimes rule. For conservatives, it is a hardly-ever rule.
    Politicians of all stripes hate it because it kills their authority-boner.

  6. The interesting thing is that the US Sup. Ct. did decide after the Harrison Act that narcotics maintenance is professional practice for a physician. It just seems that nobody wanted to press the issue after that, so doctors & authorities have been acting as if it were still illegal unless specifically authorized, as via a methadone program.

    And unless maintenance practice has changed, methadone maintenance maintains people on a high dose, not a low one, the idea being to build up their tolerance & make the effects of add’l narcotics the person might take small in comparison.

  7. I can’t propose to know how things occur in Dr. Singer’s surgery practice, and he is likely a very intelligent person, but there seems to be a disconnect or lack of understanding to two key issues here. First, addicted patients are not interested in having a discussion about their addiction and become volatile, irrational, even violent when there are efforts to help them curb their addiction.

    The second issue is that patients are actually the big manipulators here. They are not ashamed to ‘doctor shop,’ and tour all area emergency departments to fill their pockets with prescriptions. Emergency departments and primary care providers have limited time to evaluate and investigate potential addictive behaviors, especially when the patients are not inclined to cooperate with any review.

    I’ve encountered more than a couple patients who would be well-served to be told “suck it up, buttercup” and given directions to the nearest Walmart to pick up some tylenol and ibuprofen, but litigation is the libertarian way, and I don’t have the time to address constant complaints about not getting opioids.

    1. They is why legalizing drugs is the solution. Then there will be no doctor shopping and all this nonsense that confuses the basic issue at hand that is of human autonomy.

  8. Google pay’s us monthly… Everybody can earn now from home 10000+ USD monthly… I am just working 3 to 4 hours in a day and generate extra cash… You also can earn… you can join or check more information by below site……………………………

    ————–>>> http://www.netcash2.com

  9. Google pay’s us monthly… Everybody can earn now from home 10000+ USD monthly… I am just working 3 to 4 hours in a day and generate extra cash… You also can earn… you can join or check more information by below site……………………………

    ————–>>> http://www.netcash2.com

  10. Google pay’s us monthly… Everybody can earn now from home 10000+ USD monthly… I am just working 3 to 4 hours in a day and generate extra cash… You also can earn… you can join or check more information by below site………………………….

    ————–>>> http://www.netcash2.com

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.