Monday, January 20, 2020
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Opioid addiction is a winnable war: Sessions

Both the insurgence of heroin-like drugs known as opioids and the attention the opioid addiction problem is getting in state and national politics have been widely reported.

The US Justice Department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has dispatched a small group of a dozen prosecutors, his “opioid fraud and abuse detection unit,” to districts around the country where the opioid problem is considered the greatest, Agence France Presse reports. Mr Sessions announced the new initiative at an event in Columbus, Ohio.

  • Middle District of Florida
  • Eastern District of Michigan
  • Northern District of Alabama
  • Eastern District of Tennessee
  • Nevada
  • Eastern District of Kentucky

  • Maryland
  • Western District of Pennsylvania
  • Southern District of Ohio
  • Eastern District of California
  • Middle District of North Carolina
  • Southern District of West Virginia

“This will be the highest drug death toll, and the fastest increase in a drug death toll, in the history of this republic. This is not a trend we can sustain,” Mr Sessions was quoted as saying in a speech at a police academy there. The American Society of Addiction Medicine estimates that between two and three million people are addicted. About 52,000 Americans died of overdoses just in 2015, an average of a thousand every week.

Ohio is one of the hardest hit by overdose deaths, and one of several states suing pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids. The state claims those companies market the drugs as being safe and downplay their addictive qualities.

The problem in Ohio is so severe that at one point this year a county coroner asked for a refrigerated storage trailer to accommodate all the bodies, he said. Speaking on behalf of a White House commission studying opioid abuse, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Monday compared the overdose deaths to the scale of 9/11: “We have a 9/11-scale loss every three weeks,” mostly from opioid overdose deaths, Mr Christie told CNN.

The prosecutors will be targeting doctors and hospitals that issue prescriptions for highly addictive painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin or for heroin, without following the proper procedures.

One such doctor in Philadelphia, said to be part of an “assembly line” for the drugs, was convicted last week of writing hundreds of thousands of fake prescriptions for the controlled substances. In many cases, his “patients” were simply turning around and selling the drugs on the street for a profit.

Azad Khan signed progress notes for hundreds of patients at the South Philadelphia drug-treatment clinic, indicating he had performed a physical exam on each and had provided drug-treatment counseling for patients when, in fact, all he did was take their money and write out a prescription for however much of the drug they had paid for. He made millions in the operation, reported.

“If you are a doctor illegally prescribing opioids for profit or a pharmacist letting these pills walk out the door onto the streets based on prescriptions you know are obtained under false pretenses, we’re coming after you,” Mr Sessions said.

Some Democrats were critical of the plan to step up prosecutions of doctors and pharmacies without taking any steps to increase treatment options for the addicted victims of these drugs that take users’ body chemistry down a seemingly irreversible path of addiction and abuse.

The Associated Press quoted Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Mandy McClure as saying that “evidence shows” more treatment and public health options are needed. With the cuts President Donald Trump has proposed in Medicaid spending, Ms McClure thinks he and congressional Republicans would make the epidemic worse.

For his part, in calling the opioid crisis a “winnable war,” Mr Sessions dismissed the recommendations of the president’s bipartisan Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis in its interim report released just a few days earlier. It recommended expanding treatment options and other health care resources.

Treatment very often fails, Mr Sessions suggested in his speech, citing a now-debunked report that the opioid known as fentanyl can kill a person just by touching it. Even with the myths going around, though, the opioid crisis is real and can’t be ignored.

US Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, released a statement praising the effort to reduce the addiction crisis.

“The prescription opioid epidemic is destroying lives and tearing apart families, and I am glad to see the Eastern District of Tennessee selected for this pilot program,” he said in a release. “This partnership will be an added resource for the US attorney’s office, and I am hopeful the efforts can bring to justice the pill mills and unlawful pharmacies that are profiting off the hardships of Tennesseans affected by opioid abuse. I applaud President Trump and Attorney General Sessions for their commitment to this critical issue and will continue working with them to further address this crisis.”

The Daily Herald in Chicago reported that teens who abuse these or other drugs may show signs, including physical changes like weight loss or gain and life changes like goal-abandonment, as well as heightened secrecy, fishy-sounding excuses, difficulty focusing, unusual resistance to discipline or feedback, and paranoia, irritability, anxiety, or fidgeting.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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