About Addiction: food, treatment, babies and teens

Our weekly About Addiction summaries are back! Make sure to tune in for the latest in research and news coverage of the drug abuse and drug addiction landscape. This time we’re talking about the food and drug addiction connection, drug using baby boomers, accidents, addicted babies, and drug using teens during summer breaks. If you

Food or drugs? A new study suggests a path for choice – A recent study Yale School of Medicine professors has found that neurons associated with overeating are also linked to non-food associated behaviors such as drug addiction. However, their discovery points to a relationship different than the contemporary view; they found an inverse relationship between eating and drug addiction that shows people who lack a desire for food have a higher predisposition towards drug addiction. According to their findings, it seems that the drive for food and the drive for drugs compete with one another!

Obamacare’s effect on addiction treatment – The recent ruling by the Supreme Court to uphold the Affordable Care Act was a huge moment in our country for many reasons. In the world of addiction, it has a great impact as well! By making sure all citizens have health insurance, it gives those seeking treatment a huge advantage: choice. In the past, those seeking addiction treatment could be limited by their insurance situation. Now, those seeking help will be able to get the treatment that is right for them, not just what is available to them. Also, substance abuse treatment will be able to have a more wide-reaching effect as treatment can be provided earlier as well as a preventative measure.

The dangers of driving high – According to a recent study done at Dalhousie University, marijuana use has a severe adverse effect on safe driving. This may not be new information, however this paper was the first to separate driving under the influence of marijuana from the influence of other drugs and alcohol. They looked at nine smaller studies including 49,411 people in order to calculate their results: finding that cannabis use nearly doubles the likelihood of a motor collision as compared to an uninhibited driver. With marijuana being the most widely used illicit substance in the world, with its usage rate still rising, it is important to separate the truths and myths about its effects.

Babies born addicted – This Thursday’s episode of Rock Center With Brian Williams featured a story on babies born with withdrawal symptoms from prescription painkillers. This is an epidemic in America, and the symptoms are heartbreaking to watch: the babies have tremors, digestive problems and cry inconsolably. There’s little doctors and nurses can do to comfort them as they slowly wean them off of the drugs. On this Thursday’s new Rock Center, Kate Snow reports on the shocking increase in the number of babies born addicted.

A Teenagers’ Summer: No school, less supervision, more drugs? – A new study released by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) reports that 671,000 teens aged twelve to seventeen will try alcohol for the first time this June and July alone; 305,000 teens will try cigarettes for the first time during these months, while 274,500 will have their first experience with marijuana. These numbers are an increase from the rest of the year, likely due to an increase in free time and decrease in adult supervision. While a large proportion of these individuals will never end up developing an addiction or substance abuse problems, this study makes it clear that the summertime may be a good time to talk to your kids about the risks and effects of these substances.

Spankings leading to drug abuse? New research reveals it may not be as far-fetched as you may think – The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released research that reveals strong links between corporal punishment in childhood and mood disorders, personality disorders, and addiction and drug abuse later in life. Specifically, according to the study, spankings raise the risk of alcohol and drug abuse by 59 percent. With a reported 94 percent of three- and four-year-olds receiving a spanking at least once in the last year, this has a widespread effect on the entire population. While one spanking does not lead to abuse, the research points to physical punishment as a regular means of discipline having adverse effects on mental health later in life.

Is grandpa getting high? More and more often the answer is becoming yes! – Drug use and drug abuse are often thought of in connection with young people, however the Baby Boomers are proving it can affect older people just the same. Last year alone an estimated 4.8 million adults aged 50 and above used an illicit drug. The risk is not just with illegal drugs, but also the misuse of prescription drugs. With the average 50-year-old-man using four different prescription drugs per day, the risk of becoming addicted to any one of them is substantial.

Seeing addiction as a disease, not a moral failing – In an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse Nora Volkow explains how addiction and drug use affect the brain and why it should be considered a disease, not a moral failing. Check out this link to see the whole interview.

DARE – Drug Abuse Prevention that doesn’t work

  • DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) is the largest school-based drug abuse prevention program in the United States.
  • 80% of school districts across the country teach the DARE curriculum, reaching an estimated 26 million children (1).
  • Every year, over $1 billion goes into keeping the program running. A billion dollars may be a small price to pay to keep America’s children drug-free, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that DARE isn’t doing what it’s supposed to.

What is DARE?

dareFounded in 1983, DARE began as a 17 week long course taught to 5th and 6th graders. The course is taught by a uniformed police officer who teaches the students about drug use and gang violence. The DARE curriculum includes role-playing, written assignments, presentations, and group discussions.

DARE uses a zero tolerance policy towards drug use. Students are told to adopt mottoes like “Drug free is the way to be” and “Just say no to drugs!” Pictures of blackened lungs and drunk driving accidents are methods used to discourage experimentation. The focus of the program is clearly flat out refusal. Students are not taught what to do if they are already experiencing problems with drugs.

Is DARE effective?

The effectiveness of DARE has been called into question since the early 90s. A meta-analysis of 11 studies conducted from 1991-2002 shows no significant effect of DARE in reducing drug use (1). Several studies have even reported an opposite effect, with DARE leading to higher rates of drug use later on in life. Reports from the California Department of Education, American Psychological Association, and U.S. Surgeon General all label DARE as ineffective.

The results seem clear, but statistics don’t seem to be enough to convince concerned parents and policy makers to shut down any drug abuse prevention program. With drug use on the rise, it seems that DARE is here to stay. But perhaps getting rid of DARE isn’t the best option. The framework and funding already exist for a potentially successful prevention program. Maybe all we need to do is apply some science and develop new techniques that will provide results.

*It should be noted that in 2001, DARE made substantial revisions to its program under the title “New DARE.” The effects of these revisions have yet to be measured, so we’ll wait and see.

 

Citation:

1. West, S.L., O’Neal, K.K. (2004) Project D.A.R.E. Outcome Effectiveness Revisited. American Journal of Public Health. 94(6)

Is opiate pain medication safe for addicts? Part I

A recent user question on VYou (see my response here) addressed the issue of prescribing addicts with opioid pain medication. Since prescription medication abuse and addiction is on the rise and getting more and more attention in the media every year, the question of whether addicts in recovery, or people who have dealt with substance abuse and addiction problems in the past, should be prescribed these medications is a very relevant one.

Chronic pain affects a substantial portion of the population worldwide (as many as 30%, see here). Opiate medications are one of the most commonly used approaches to treating such pain, which if untreated can cause serious disruptions to sufferers’ lives. Even when treated, chronic pain can be pretty debilitating. Some research (1) brings up good questions about the true effectiveness of opiate therapy for chronic pain, especially among long-term opiate users (like heroin and prescription pain medication addicts) but also among other drug using populations.

So how common is the practice? What sort of results do drug addicts usually get from these opiate therapies? And finally, how many of the addicts or drug abusers who receive these therapies end up abusing them and can we identify those people early so we can stop prescribing to them? In this three-part series of articles we’re going to cover these questions in-depth.

Prescription pain medication use in addict populations

Clinicians treating chronic back pain choose from a range of options, including opioid medications, exercise therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, tricyclic antidepressants, acupuncture, and electrical stimulation. One study (1)  found wide variability in the percent of chronic pain patients prescribed opioids (from 3%-66%) although the studies varied widely in their size and population served – some even looks at general back pain and not chronic pain alone (they tended to have much lower opioid prescription percentages). Among chronic pain clinic patients, chronic opioid pain medication use was estimated at 19% (2).

Among addicted populations, concerns about tolerance, withdrawal, and abuse tend to cut prescription rates for opioid pain medications. However, past drug abuse can exacerbate pain issues, especially for people who abuse, or have abused, opiates in the past. For this reason, it can sometimes be difficult to properly manage pain in people with a history of addiction. One study (3) found that as many as 67% of patients in a Methadone Maintenance Program and 52% of patients in short term residential treatment programs were being prescribed opiates for pain. It’s important to note that these numbers are higher than those reported in other studies but that populations in treatment do generally show prescription rates higher than the general population. A study in Finland (a country that has great medical record data) found that opiate prescription rates in substance abuse populations were equivalent (not higher or lower) to those in the general population. The College of Problems on Drug Dependence itself had released an official statement noting that a balance must be reached between fear of opioid prescriptions for pain and the usefulness of opioid pain medication for chronic and severe pain (4).

Interestingly, it seems that of all opioid pain medication prescriptions, the largest increases in troubling use has been around oxycodone (Oxycontin), which gets mentioned as often in emergency departments (ED) around the country even though it is prescribed about one-third as often as hydrocodone (Vicodin). This is less surprising when you consider the fact that many addicts report using oxycontin in different ways including smoking, snorting, and injecting the stuff, which is stronger and does not have the same amount of fillers as most hydrocodone preparations. The fact that oxycodone is stronger also means it is more effective for pain relief through higher activation of the opioid system that is relevant for addiction.

In our next piece we are going to explore whether opiate pain medication is helpful in controlling pain among addicts and substance abusers, see you then!

Citations:

1. Martell, O’Connor, Kerns, Becker, Morales, Kosten, Fiellin. (2007). Systematic Review: Opioid Treatment for Chronic Back Pain: Prevalence, Efficacy, and Association with Addiction. Annals of Internal Medicine, 146, 116-127.

2. Chabal, Erjavec, Jacobson, Mariano, Chaney (1997). Prescription Opiate Abuse in Chronic Pain Patients: Clinical Criteria, Incidence, and Predictors. Clinical Journal of Pain, 13, 150-155.

3. Rosenblum, Joseph, Fong, Kipnis, Cleland, and Portenoy (2003). Prevalence and characteristics of chronic pain among chemically dependent patients in methadone maintenance and residential treatment facilities. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 289, 2370-2378.

4. College on Problems of Drug Dependence taskforce on prescription opioid non-medical use and abuse: position statement.

Keep your head up – no shame in addiction

A client come in today for an addiction treatment evaluation. She had so much shame about her drug use that even the relative who brought her in didn’t know what drug she’d been using every day for the last year or so. I told her the same thing I tell all those who ask me for help – it is absolutely up to you to figure out who you feel comfortable telling about your alcohol, drug, gambling, or sex addiction problems. Just keep in mind that being shameful and secretive about your problems can cause addicts in recovery to be secretive when they experience cravings, triggers, and thoughts about using or acting out.

As hard as it is, disclosing these issues can provide an amazing amount of support while also allowing those close to you to be a real part of your recovery. Importantly, you don’t have to disclose to your significant other, your daughter, or your aunt. You can find an outside support system, either through peer-support groups like the 12-steps or SMART recovery or another group where you feel truly comfortable sharing. Shame will keep you isolated, sharing will help set you free.

Honesty, trust, and humility, along with the ability to admit that you are not necessarily managing recovery perfectly can actually be seen as strengths, not weaknesses. Try it out.

Criminal drug possession – Felony versus misdemeanor

In all but 13 States in the U.S., drug possession for personal use is still considered a felony punishable by years in prison and hefty fines. This despite the fact that a significant portion of those arrested meet criteria for dependence (addiction) on the drugs they are caught with, and the fact that our own federal drug abuse agencies (The National Institute on Drug Abuse – NIDA) considers addiction to be a medical condition that involves reduced control over the drug use itself. I guess that’s why the federal government also considers possession for personal use as a misdemeanor.

Drug users don't belong in prisonIn essence these state laws are putting drug users, and especially drug addicts, at risk of being locked up for years, placed on parole, and subject to the endless other barriers to employment and housing, which make it more difficult for these convicted felons to reintegrate into the community. As if fighting drug addiction wasn’t hard enough.

The question is, would reducing the penalty for drug possession for personal use to a misdemeanor in more states result in increased drug use and crime or would it actually help free up resources being used for incarceration towards more effective strategies for combating the problem?

California State senator Mark Leno is bringing up a bill for consideration in the state senate (SB1506) that is seeking to do just that – reducing the penalty for possession for personal use of any drug to a misdemeanor. Mind you, this law is not to affect any other drug-related offenses such as drug possession for sale, drug manufacturing, or transportation. What it would do is cap the maximum incarceration length of possession at one year in jail (not more years in prison) as well as cap the maximum community supervision length at 5 years (3 years are commonly assigned for such offenses).

I know what some of you are saying – drug users know they’re breaking the law and they should be punished for it. Indeed, punishing them for it will make them less likely to use, which will leave them facing no jail time instead of continuously facing single years in jail for reduced drug possession offenses. Besides, if we cut the penalties for drug possession aren’t we being soft on crime? Aren’t we saying that using drugs is okay?

The problem with that argument is that it assumes that states that have higher penalties for drug possession for personal use have lower rates of crime, drug use, or drug possession arrests. The don’t. Indeed, the 13 states (and D.C.) that already consider drug possession for personal use a misdemeanor have incarceration rates that are no higher, illicit drug use rates that are slightly lower, and addiction treatment admission rates that are on par and even a bit higher than the rates of felony states. Again, that means the states that reduced the penalty for drug possession see less arrests, more people in addiction treatment, and a smaller percentage of their population using such drugs. Interestingly, those results are somewhat similar to the effect complete decriminalization had on drug use, crime, and addiction treatment in Portugal.

In previous articles we’ve spoken about the stigma of addiction and the barriers people report to entering addiction treatment in the U.S. Aside from cost and lack of information, people usually report that they either don’t want help, think they can handle the problem on their own or are too ashamed to ask for help. We’ve also reported on the ridiculous prison overcrowding problem in California due to the high incarceration rates of drug users. The question of decriminalization has come up many times (see here, here, and here) and the evidence I’ve seen keeps pointing towards the conclusion that reduced penalties get more people into addiction treatment while reducing incarceration rates with no real collateral increased in illicit drug use or crime. When you think about it, since the Harrison Narcotics act of 1914 essentially created the black drug market in the U.S. when it restricted, for the first time, the sale of narcotics, it makes sense that loosening up those restriction would reduce the size of that same black market and with it drug-associated crime.

I have spent the last 10 years researching the best ways to fight addiction problems and almost everything I’ve seen suggests that treatment and prevention efforts, not long jail or prison sentences, are the best ways to combat the problem. I have seen evidence that very shirt-term incarceration can help certain resistant offenders, but those efforts can easily be applied for misdemeanor and require nothing close to multiple-year sentences. For that reason, I support not only Senator Leno’s SB1506 bill in California, but other efforts around the country to reduce the criminal penalties associated with simple drug possession to get more of the people who need help into addiction treatment and away from jails. It saves us money, it is more humane, and it just makes sense.

If you want to help Senator Leno pass this bill, contact his office through this link: http://sd03.senate.ca.gov/

 

Citations/Reading:

U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 Statistical Abstract, Table 308. Crime Rates by State, 2008 and 2009, and by Type, 2009 (2012).

Collins et al., (2010). The Cost of Substance Abuse: The Use of Administrative Data to Investigate Treatment Benefits in a Rural Mountain State. Western Criminology Review 11(3), 13-28.

Gardiner, Urada, and Anglin (2011). Band-Aids and Bullhorns: Why California’s Drug Policy Is Failing and What We Can Do to Fix It. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 23, 108-135.

Addiction research – Who are we studying?

I teach a class on the psychology of addiction (Psych 477 at California State University in Long Beach) and as I have been preparing the lectures something has become very clear to me – textbooks patently gloss over important details about the addiction research they cite. One of the most obvious gaps I’ve noticed this semester concerns the population of research subjects most addiction research is conducted on. An example will clarify:

A student group in my class had to read a study assessing the residual effects of methamphetamine on mood and sleep. They were amazed that no changes in mood were observed and that participants slept a full 6-8 hours the night after being administered meth! Would you have been surprised with these results given that we all have been told that crystal meth improves mood and causes insomnia?

Would it matter at all if I told you that the participants in the study were current meth abusers who use an average of 4 times every week?

For anyone not aware of the tainted history of health research in the U.S. (I’m including psychological research in this group), go ahead and read about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment (video here). There are other examples including Stanley Milgram‘s obedience studies, and more but as exciting as the discussion of these studies is, it’s time to get back to my main point.

It is mostly due to the ethically-questionable, psychologically damaging, research above that research institutions are now required to vet proposed research studies using Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to assure that human participants in studies are consenting to participate of their own free will, are not coerced, and are not suffering undue damage. This is also true of addiction research. Rarely does the public consider this fact however when they are being reported on research relevant to addiction. I know this because the kids in my class never gave it a second thought.

When reading about addiction research, think about the subjects participating in itNearly all addiction research, especially studies utilizing “hard” drugs like cocaine, meth, opiates, etc., are required to make use of a very limited part of society – drug using individuals with a history of use of the specific drug of interest who are specifically not interested in treatment. Individuals who have never tried the drug or who want to be treated for drug abuse or dependence (addiction) are excluded due to ethical concerns. In most studies, participants can not qualify if they are addicted to drugs other than those being studies (except smoking, for which exceptions are usually made since we’d be able left with no participants otherwise) or have any associated mental health disorders, which are very common among addicted individuals. I would further assert that for at least a substantial portion of these research participants, the term “addicts” may not be appropriate since many addicts would not willingly give up using their favorite substance for a week or two to be replaces with a hospital bed and an experimenter controlled dose of drug or placebo. Taken together, our research subjects are pretty obviously not representative of all drug users, or all addicts, or all anything else. They make up a very specific group – less than perfect, but what we have to work with.

In some studies that attempt to make a direct comparison between controls (or drug naive participants) and drug users, this is likely less of an issue. This can happen when researchers try to examine brain structure differences, or performance on a specific psychological or physical test. In such cases researchers can at least statistically identify contributions of length of use, method of use, and other relevant data on differences between people who use and those that don’t. There are probably still some serious differences between “true” addicts, recreational users, and semi-chronic users that would be important to understand here, but we can’t so we don’t. But when it comes to assessing mood effects, or indeed any of a number of subjective effects of drugs, drug cravings, and withdrawal, this limitation in the population to be studied is something that often needs to be made explicitly clear to most public consumers of research. Since we can’t assess changes in mood, absorption rate, anxiety, or any other such measure (some exceptions for very low doses in very specific circumstances) among people who are new to the drug, we end up assessing them among people with a lot of experience, but not enough of a problem to want addiction treatment. Again, this should be considered a pretty specific type of drug user in my opinion.

There are other types of studies – those conducted with abstinent ex-users or addiction treatment intervention studies utilizing addicts who want, or who reported to, treatment on their own or in response to advertisements. While these studies make use of populations that can be considered at least closer to the individuals they are specifically aimed at – assessing the return of  cognitive function after short or long term abstinence or testing a new intervention on those who want treatment – they still bring on limitations that need to be specifically considered.

An important point – most researchers recognize these issues and make them explicitly part of their research publications, in a specific section called “Limitations” but what seems troubling is that the public doesn’t have any awareness of these issues. So when someone tells you that “they just found out meth doesn’t actually make people lose sleep,” take a second to ask “for who?”

Drug Policy Alliance and the Recovery Movement

I had the opportunity to sit on a panel today during a drug policy alliance session on the role of the recovery movement in drug policy discussions. While it was obvious that everyone on the panel could generally agree that the current U.S. policy when it comes to drug use, abuse, and addiction is not working and unsustainable, it wasn’t clear that we had a common roadmap of how to get to a better place.

Some of the panel speakers were in recovery and others weren’t and while most were from the U.S. we had a representative of the Scandinavian approach for a nice little “reality check” and a bit more balance than one normally gets on these things. From student representatives of the Columbia University Students for Sensible Drug Policy to the distinguished William Moyers from Hazeldon, our panel certainly didn’t lack in a breadth of experiences. Still, even our eight member-panel couldn’t appease everyone when it came to diversity (we missed the mark on racial representativeness). The discussion was civil, but definitely showed that there are serious differences that need to be bridged if the decriminalization discussion is to ever get serious.

I’m all for collaboration and I definitely think that we need to end up in a place where drug use is no longer criminalized as it currently is. Quadrupling our prison population in a few decades with approximately 20% of inmates incarcerated for drug offenses is stupid, expensive, and does little to stop the problem we’re trying to deal with as evidenced by the relatively stable rate of use, abuse, and addiction in this country.

But how do we move forward? Do we make these drugs legal for everyone to use or place an age limit on it? Do we pretend that there’s no risk that use of legal substances will go up to meet the rates of alcohol and tobacco abuse or do we prepare for the possibility that it might? Do we completely remove legal sanctions from the discussion or do we keep them for a specific subset of hard to reach individuals?

As far as I’m concerned, until these questions are considered and dealt with, there’s not going to be any change. Unfortunately, from my reading of the panel and crowd today, even at a Drug Policy Alliance conference, the responses to each of those questions is likely to bring up a lot of debate. I guess that means our work is not yet done…