No Magic Bullets

Last week here in Tucson, Arizona, some young people were together at a house using heroin. They were unaware it was laced with fentanyl. Friends ran to a nearby restaurant and flagged down police to help one person who was unresponsive from an overdose. He was revived with Narcan (naloxone). The officers were then taken to the house where six others had overdosed. One 19-yr old did not make it. Tucson Police all carry naloxone because they are usually the “first responders” to victims of overdose. Sadly, our Pima County Sheriff officers do not carry it – with the line of reasoning being that it is too costly for the training and they are not usually the first responders.

Naloxone (Narcan, Evzio, injectable or intranasal spray) was patented in 1961, and is an opioid antagonist—meaning that it binds to opioid receptors and can reverse and block the effects of other opioids by displacing them from the opioid receptor sites in the brain. Whereas an agonist causes an action, an antagonist blocks the action of the agonist. It has been used in hospital “code arrest” emergency situations for decades. It is being carried by emergency personnel and families of addicts because it can very quickly restore normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of overdosing with heroin or prescription opioid pain medications.

But it is not a magic bullet. Statistically, most opioid overdoses happen when the user is alone. By the time they are found, usually many hours later, it is too late for resuscitation. Another reason is that public safety experts are concerned, and rightly so, because addicts may be less motivated to find a way to quit using opioids since they can be revived. Their family and friends will also feel less anxiety and less concerned about urging their addict to get long term help. A recent news special interviewed several opiate addicts who had been revived multiple times with naloxone. One was an older man who is a “career addict”. He has no real desire to get clean and carries naloxone in case any of his friends need it. The other was a young woman who had overdosed and been revived several times and had finally gone through a recovery program and is clean and sober. She is very thankful for the times she did not die because finally, finally she was able to get to the point where she wanted to leave her miserable life of addiction and be free. But let’s remember: she needed a recovery program option. We cannot just turn those addicted to opioids back onto the streets after reviving them.

She is an example of the recent statistics that it takes on average 10-12 recovery attempts before an opiate addict can stay clean and sober long-term. Ten to twelve. It is a fact that relates to the addictive quality of opioids. For many of those addicted to opiates, those 10-12 attempts will never happen without overdoses and then being revived with naloxone. We, as a society, must be willing to offer this chance to those who are trapped by addiction to substances that have poured onto our streets and into our schools at an unprecedented rate. Our son went through several recovery programs and was at the point of really wanting to be free of his addiction. But without the needed medication, such as Suboxone, his last relapse proved fatal. He died of a heroin overdose at 25 yrs old – alone. There was no magic bullet for him.

BLOG: MAT, Part 2

MAT––Medication Assisted Treatment. Dr. Hillary Kunins, a clinical addiction expert, dispels the notion that treating an addiction patient with medication is simply exchanging one drug with another. Here is a link for a 2 min video where Dr Kunins offers a simple explanation of why physical dependence is not the same as addiction.

Here are the drugs that are currently in use for opioid addiction. Methadone has historically been used for heroin addiction, since the early 1970’s, when it was authorized by the FDA but restricted to daily dispensing clinics. Because it is an opioid-like drug, it has tended to only keep addicts alive, but never really able to be drug-free.

Nearly a half-century ago, buprenorphine was developed in England, where chemists were competing to invent a less addictive painkiller than morphine––it turned out to be far more addictive. It is now sold as Subutex and is an opioid partial agonist. An agonist is a chemical that binds to a receptor and activates it, producing a biological response. Like heroin, buprenorphine attaches to the brain’s opioid receptors creating euphoria, but it does not plug in as completely, so its effects are reduced. It is slower acting and longer lasting, attenuating the rush of sensation and eliminating the plummets afterward. But there is still potential for abuse and it can produce side effects such as respiratory depression.

Naloxone (Narcan, Evzio, injectable or intranasal spray) was patented in 1961, and is an opioid antagonist—meaning that it binds to opioid receptors and can reverse and block the effects of other opioids by displacing them from the opioid receptor sites in the brain.Whereas an agonist causes an action, an antagonist blocks the action of the agonist. It has been used in hospital “code arrest” emergency situations for decades. It was used on me before a surgery when I had been given too much anesthesia and was beginning to go in to respiratory arrest. It is being carried by emergency personnel and families of addicts because it can very quickly restore normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of overdosing with heroin or prescription opioid pain medications.

Naltrexone (Vivitrol, monthly injection) is an opiate antagonist that is more slowly released than naloxone. It is primarily used to manage opioid dependence or alcohol dependence and abuse by blocking neural pathways to the brain for dopamine neurotransmitters. It requires going through complete withdrawals and detoxification first because it will not work until opioids are out of the system. People who try to take opioids after taking naltrexone are at risk for opioid overdose and death since it takes using large amount of opioids to overcome its effects.

Suboxone––four parts buprenorphine, one part naloxone––was approved by the FDA in late 2002. Generally, although not accurate, when the word “buprenorphine” is used, people are referring to Suboxone. In addition to side effects from the buprenorphine in Suboxone, if a person has been taking it for a long time and they no longer receive it, they will suffer withdrawal symptoms similar to those suffered when stopping other forms of opiates. And, suffering from these withdrawal symptoms can worsen underlying mental disorders like anxiety or depression. At times, withdrawal can become overwhelming, which happened to jL, which sends patients into buprenorphine abuse and dependency. This has created a debate over the use of Suboxone and Subutex for addiction treatment.

A new study in The Lancet (January 27, 2018), sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), compared the effectiveness of extended-release naltrexone with buprenorphine-naloxone in the US. The results were both promising and disappointing. While naltrexone is as effective as buprenorphine-naloxone once treatment begins, it is also significantly more difficult to actually start naltrexone because of the prolonged detox period—which can span more than a week—that buprenorphine-naloxone does not.

The biggest regret we have had since our son’s death in 2014 is that we did not take his doctors advice and have John Leif on Suboxone. There were many reasons that went into this decision, but the main one was that our health insurance did not pay the costs for any “mental health” coverage. Since we had so many years of our son’s relapses and recovery expenses, we decided to let him just “try harder” with the 12-steps and a sober living house. Sadly, it was not enough for a young man who desperately wanted to be clean and free of his enslaving addiction––he need MAT and we believe he would be alive today if he had been given that option.