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Opioid addiction: We can do more — and we must do more

opioidsCreative Commons/johnofhammondOpioid addiction is a growing problem in all corners of our state and can impact anyone from any walk of life.

“I don’t feel anything.” It’s incredible how four simple words can impact your life in such a profound way. Those were the four words I said to the emergency room doctor after I’d learned I’d broken my arm in two places and pinched a nerve. It was my freshman year at the University of St. Thomas and I’d been at sports practice. The doctors had given me hydrocodone/acetaminophen as I said those five words. No problem – we’ve got something stronger. Thus began my introduction to opiates and my journey through addiction.

I never thought I would end up an addict and certainly didn’t fit my preconceived notions of what an addict was. After all, I was in college, had a great group of friends, played sports, was active in clubs and generally had anything I could have ever wanted in life. I wasn’t like “them” and I certainly wasn’t as bad. 

Opioid addiction is a growing problem in all corners of our state and can impact anyone from any walk of life. In Hennepin County, officials recently launched a “NOverdose” drive after the release of new data showing that the county saw a spike of more than 30 percent in opioid overdose deaths last year. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said, “We can do more. The public safety messaging is important. We want to get the message out far and wide that we’ve got a problem and it’s going to take the community to help us get back on track here.” A majority of Minneapolis adults said that addiction to opioids is one of today’s greatest social priorities, according to a recent study. Stanek is right; we can do more – and we must do more.

Minnesota had 338 opioid deaths in 2015

While statewide totals are not yet available for 2016, 338 Minnesotans died of opioid overdoses in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That staggering number represents a fivefold increase since 1999. 

John Rouleau
John Rouleau

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson recently teamed up with her Wisconsin counterpart, Brad Schimel, in support of the “Dose of Reality” campaign, which began in the Badger state and is designed to combat prescription painkiller abuse. “Prescription drug abuse is an issue that stretches beyond state lines and I’m excited to partner with Attorney General Swanson on bringing a Dose of Reality to Minnesota. I look forward to working together to make both of our states stronger and safer,” Schimel noted in announcing in the initiative with Minnesota.

When I began my journey to recovery on Sept. 10, 2010, I wasn’t sure I could stay sober “one day at a time” and focused on “one hour at a time.” I had no idea the resources available, and I still had my stigmatized notions of what an addict really was, and I didn’t know where to look. I’ve now been sober for over six years. That’s why I share my story.

Never be afraid to ask for help

Everyone has their own bottom — it doesn’t necessarily look like the alcoholic or drug addict we stereotyped. Never be afraid to ask for help because you’re “not as bad as” that other guy or gal. Don’t be afraid of the stigma. Help exists and life can get so much better.

If you or anyone you care about ever needs help, there are always hands there willing to help. From the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (866-269-8625) to Resource Inc. (612-752-8074) and so many others, Minnesota has a number of great resources willing to help. But it must be our job as a state to do a better job of sharing our stories, raising awareness, and ensuring that people know where to look for help when they need it.

To help others, I encourage all Minnesotans concerned about addiction to attend Opioid Awareness Day at the Capitol today (Tuesday, Feb. 21).

John Rouleau is a public affairs professional who lives in St. Paul. He has been sober since Sept. 10, 2010.

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If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/21/2017 - 10:14 am.

    For starters . . .

    For starters, doctors need to be allowed to write an initial prescription for just a few pills in case that’s all the patient needs or in case the medication is ineffective or not well tolerated. And then not have to jump through so many hoops for the first refill in case the patient really DOES need more.

    Right now, the prescription restrictions are having the wrong effect because the doctor just goes ahead and writes an initial script for 30 pills or whatever just to be sure the patient has “enough”. And in many cases, that’s way too many – either leading to addiction, or providing “extra” pills that can be sold.

    A simple rule change could be really helpful here.

  2. Submitted by Mark Ohm on 02/21/2017 - 10:36 am.

    Certain doctors hand out opioids without restraint

    and are more likely addict their patients.

    “In a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers tried to tease out that link between prescriptions and addiction. And they found doctors’ prescribing habits — whether they give out opioids at a higher rate versus a lower rate — matter a lot.”

    http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/2/16/14622198/doctors-prescribe-opioids-varies-patients-hooked

  3. Submitted by Bill Willy on 02/21/2017 - 08:50 pm.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    Pat Berg’s right . . . When John came into the emergency room with a broken arm, a nerve being pinched and probably in enough riveting pain to be on the edge of shock, a shot of the most effective pain medication available was totally appropriate, as is the rest of what Pat suggested.

    But then there’s this from a Susan Perry Second Opion piece in December, 2015:

    “. . . most states used to prohibit physicians from prescribing opioids to patients with non-cancer chronic pain — until the late 1990s, that is. That’s when the pharmaceutical industry successfully lobbied state legislatures to liberalize opioid use to include the treatment of common chronic conditions, such as low back pain, headaches and fibromylagia. Physicians and patient advocacy groups with strong financial ties to opioid manufacturers helped greatly with that lobbying effort.

    “Sales jumped to more than $9 billion a year. Deaths from opioid overdoses also climbed — to their current tragic heights.”

    [And, related to what Mark had to say]

    “But, as AP reporter Matthew Perone reported over the weekend, the effort to get physicians to curb their prescribing of these drugs ‘may be faltering amid stiff resistance from drugmakers, industry-funded groups and, now, even other public health officials.’ ”

    http://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2015/12/opioid-deaths-reach-record-high-drug-industry-resists-efforts-rein-prescripti

    For more insight into the completely bogus 1996 sales pitch used by the makers of OxyContin (one of the biggest, hottest-selling, family wealth-generating, big time killer opioids), take a look at Susan Perry’s May, 2016 article, “OxyContin’s 12-hour problem — and its central role in the prescription opioid epidemic”:

    http://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2016/05/oxycontins-12-hour-problem-and-its-central-role-prescription-opioid-epidemic

    (Spoiler alert: Even though the manufacturer’s main selling point was “one dose would relieve pain for 12 hours — twice as long as the lower-costing generic painkillers available at the time,” the manufacturer knew that wasn’t true.)

    And now we have an opioid epidemic and the beginning of efforts to get a handle on it. Most of those efforts seem to focus on getting doctors to be more careful and to enter opioid prescription info into a database (and check that database before they write a prescription), “raising public awareness” and letting everyone know what THEY can do to help fight the problem and where to get help for themselves or others if they have an opioid problem. (Congratulations on your success, John . . . )

    But there’s one big thing missing from the To Do List:

    Opioid manufacturers.

    Is anyone asking (or pressing) them to do ANYthing to help slow the epidemic (and deaths) they’ve been more than partially responsible for causing?

    Are they contributing any cash to the public awareness campaigns?

    Are they being asked to, or offering to, help health care providers and those addicted to their opioids cover the (significant) cost of medications that help people fight off opioid addiction (Suboxone, Buprenorphine, Naltrexone, Zubsolv, Methadone)?

    Or are they viewing those things as “the government’s job” and concentrating their efforts on making and selling the drugs consumers need to help them cope with “opioid induced constipation”?

    And how about the state legislature? Is anyone there thinking or talking about revisiting the laws their predecessors changed in the 90s when they were lobbied and convinced by the drug industry that they should loosen the laws to okay the prescription of opioids for things like “lower back pain, headaches and fibromylagia” because, they said, they had created “new and improved, less addictive” opioids (that weren’t any of those things)?

    When it comes to opioids, the U.S. pharmaceutical cartel makes El Chapo (Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman) and his global network look like a hapless clown act. But while El Chapo, who just arrived in the U.S. after being extradited from Mexico, sits in a New York jail cell waiting to face opioid sales-related life imprisonment charges in May, the kingpins and foot soldiers of the “completely legal,” multi-billion dollar American opioid operation are living in high cotton, moseying around, free as birds, laughing all the way to the bank (while the president gets himself elected by talking about building a wall to keep people like El Chapo out of our country).

    And, of course, they’re fighting tooth and nail to fend off any attempts at “government re-regulation” of opioids and fighting the “Dangerous spread of that highly addictive ruiner of youth” (they haven’t been able to figure out how to patent and monopolize), “marijuana, killer weed, the bad bad news gateway drug.”

    Or, for a different perspective on that, there’s the way Dave Mindeman put it in a Community Voices piece last September:

    “And from a medical standpoint, medical marijuana needs to be much more readily available than it is now. To that end, physicians need to be educated in its use and benefits.

    “Why is this so important? Two words, really: opioid deaths. The growing opioid problem is getting increased attention. Several states put it in the epidemic category. And it is not just about illegal opioids; too many deaths come at the hands of simple prescription painkillers.

    “We hear people say we need to do something about this. But, frustratingly, the answer is right in front of us — on the street and potentially in the garden. Marijuana is, in all likelihood, a more effective answer to that opioid problem. The sparse data that we do have shows that marijuana is much less dangerous and less addictive than opioid counterparts . . .

    “In most states with cannabis programs, pain patients make up the bulk of the customer base.”

    http://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2016/09/lets-get-past-marijuana-stereotypes-and-use-it-properly-pain

    Maybe — just maybe — after the initial and immediately-after pain relief called for in cases like John’s, or in the case of people suffering from conditions like lower back pain, headaches and fibromylagia, Doctors could think about prescribing medical cannabis BEFORE jumping straight to opioids. See if it works. If not, revisit the situation and “move up a notch or two.”

    And by the way . . . If you’re covered by Medicare or Medicaid (or MinnesotaCare, most likely) no need to worry about paying for any opioids you may be prescribed: The pharmaceutical industry convinced legislators (coast-to-coast) that taxpayers should pay for them. (And, in the case of Medicare, the government must remember to never quibble over the prices they charge because Congress made that illegal in 2003).

    Medical cannabis? No such luck. You’ll have to pay (lots of) cash for that.

    Like I say, El Pharma makes El Chapo look like a totally “unsophisticated” incompetent chump.

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