By Scott Burris
Start with the sad news of the week. Dave Purchase died, aged 73. Dave was the father of needle exchange in the US, which as far as anyone can say started with Dave and a TV tray in disregard of Oregon’s drug paraphernalia law. Dave was a father figure to a whole generation (or two) of harm reduction advocates and providers. The Times obituary hits the key points in his life story, but not the calm moral force he brought to the movement. He was a man who did the right thing, modestly and steadily, and inspired others to do the same. He saved more lives than most people ever will, and had more friends. We’ll miss him.
On the good news front, Dave would have been happy to spread the word about the latest study on overdose programs using naloxone. Alex Walley and colleagues from Massachusetts reported this week in the British Medical Journal on the effects of the Massachusetts program. Between 2006 and 2009, six community overdose programs were launched to teach potential bystanders about how to recognize and respond to overdose, including with the use of nasal naloxone. Walley’s study reports that the deaths went down in places with the programs compared to places without, and that the reduction was significant in places that had a high level of implementation.
Meanwhile, the removal of legal and financing barriers to overdose programs continues to be a fairly hot item on state legislative agendas. How about every state getting on board? This would be a fine week for a series of “Dave Purchase Life Saver Acts.”
By Scott Burris
Phil Coffin and Sean Sullivan have published a cost-effectiveness study of interventions that equip heroin users and others to administer naloxone in the event of a witnessed opioid overdose. Naloxone is the standard antidote, and can easily be administered by lay people with a minimum amount of training. Family members and friends of opioid users can quickly get the drug into an overdosing user via injection or a nasal spray. In an accompanying editorial, top brass at NIDA and FDA sum up the news like this: the study
“represents a significant step in the evolution of the science in this area: a detailed analysis of the cost-effectiveness of overdose intervention with naloxone administration for heroin abusers. The authors suggest that lay naloxone administration is likely to be highly cost-effective in this setting, a robust finding that holds up under various assumptions. Future analyses that extend their findings to the setting of prescription opioids would be welcome.”
The editorial flags one of the major legal issues that gets in the way of wider naloxone distribution – its status as a prescription drug approved for use by injection. Changing this is a torturous regulatory process. In the short term, though, lawmakers can do a lot to get distribution going where it is needed. As of July of 2012, eight states had passed laws to clearly authorize or otherwise reduce legal barriers to the prescription of naloxone to drug users and other potential good Samaritans. That leaves 42 states where programs may have trouble operating out of concerns related to prescribing a drug for a lay person to administer. LawAtlas covers the law and has examples of the legislative approaches these states have taken.
One more thing: evidence that naloxone distribution looks to be cost-effective ought to motivate lawmakers to consider these programs. Many places don’t have them at all: a study published last year in MMWR reported, among other things, that “Nineteen (76.0%) of the 25 states with 2008 drug overdose death rates higher than the median and nine (69.2%) of the 13 states in the highest quartile did not have a community-based opioid overdose prevention program that distributed naloxone.” In others, programs are operating but with little or no public funding to purchase naloxone, whose price has been rising precipitously (that’s another story about our creaking system for producing essential medicines).
By Scott Burris
There’s so much we still don’t know about the prescription opioid problem. The partial remedies advanced so far reflect this:
- Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, which in essence define the problem as doctor-shopping patients;
- treatment guidelines, which define the problem as doctors without expertise; and
- crackdowns on “pill-mills,” which see the issue as physician corruption. Each of these diagnoses has an element of truth, but not necessarily enough to make the treatments effective.
One huge part of the problem has gotten far too little attention: the pharmaceutical supply chain where all these drugs start and along which they are distributed. Now, John Coleman, a former DEA officer, has given us a thorough and compelling primer on the supply chain, describing it and showing where the pressure points are for action. He is not happy about what he sees: DEA is overwhelmed, and too secretive with its data; and the distributors are too interested in profits and far too unwilling to police paying customers. But he also sees room for action and even hope. This article is well worth a read if you are interested in the overdose problem and how to solve it:
Coleman, John J. “The Supply Chain of Medicinal Controlled Substances: Addressing the Achilles Heel of Drug Diversion.” Journal of Pain and Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy 26, no. 3 (2012): 233-50.
P.S. — One of the hopeful signs he sees was Florida’s legislation beefing up state-level monitoring and controls. This takes me back to the successful Wisconsin Cancer Pain Initiative in the 70s and 80s, which articulated the Principle of Balance in drug control and demonstrated that it was possible to have good access to pain medicine and effective control. In those days, David Joranson, the state drug controller, worked closely with DEA, using state regulatory authority to shut down docs and pharmacies who were acting outside the law. The possibility of history repeating itself is a ray of sunlight in the cloudy skies of this issue. (If you are interested in the story, here’s one place to start: Joranson, D., and J. L. Dahl. “Achieving Balance in Drug Policy: The Wisconsin Model.” In Advances in Pain Research and Therapy, edited by CS Hill Jr. and WS Fields. 197-204. New York: Raven Press, 1989.)