Update 6/27/18: I am overwhelmed by the positive responses I have received for this letter. I would ask that readers also take a look at all the articles and references cited in this piece, and share those as well. Those references go into much, much more detail and research than I have had space or time for here. Thank you all so much for reading and sharing, I believe we will make a difference and win this fight for our lives! #wearehere
Dear Dr. Kolodny,
I am one of millions of chronic pain patients in the United States who has been continually and increasingly oppressed over the past few years by progressively invasive and prohibitive laws at the state and federal levels concerning the delicate relationship between doctors and patients, particularly when it comes to a certain class of drugs, i.e. opiates.
Ever since my very real, physical condition began about 4 years ago, my family and I have been disoriented again and again by a lack of what might be termed, “help,” from doctors. We have discovered a very confused medical community, corruption, and a growing collection of laws being passed so fast and furiously hardly anyone seems to know just what is going on.
This has resulted in doctors leaving my city, doctors outright refusing to accept chronic pain patients (or, if they do accept these patients, refusing to treat them with medications that suit the patient best) or new patients, and unprecedented referrals to pain management clinics and psychiatrists. I have a detailed post planned addressing the pain management clinics, but the psychiatrist referrals were more baffling to me. My local psychiatrists even refused me as a patient about a year ago because, “we don’t see chronic pain patients.” That made sense to me as I don’t suffer from mental illness, still my providers insisted I must be mistaken.
I began researching you and your career last night out of curiosity. I wanted to answer the question, “Who is this Dr. A. Kolodny, that everyone from journalists to policy makers and bloggers keep quoting as an “expert on opiates”?” And I found out. You, sir, are a psychiatrist and board-certified addiction specialist-turned policy maker (1) and buprenorphine (Suboxone) “evangelist” (2).
Your first private clinic was a Suboxone clinic in New York City, established sometime around 2003-2005, and it appears you (and/or other health officials) felt stymied by the federal limit at the time of just 30 patients for such clinics (put in place to stem corruption), because said health officials have been in the background, quietly working away at this very limit which was amended in 2006 (called DATA), to allow 100* patients after 1 year, and is now up in the House for being overturned altogether, along with expanding legal prescribers to nurses and other non-doctor medical staff. And look what has happened as a result:
Health officials, concerned about restricted access, lobbied alongside Reckitt Benckiser for the patient cap to be raised. “Why should we bind a healer’s hands from helping as many as he or she could?” Senator Hatch said, getting an amendment passed in 2006 that allowed doctors, on request, to go from 30 to 100 patients after a year.
The stage was set for more patients, prescriptions and problems. “It’s when the limit was raised from 30 that doctors started to get commercial about it,” said Dr. Art Van Zee, whose buprenorphine program at a federally funded community health center in rural Virginia is surrounded by for-profit clinics where doctors charge $100 for weekly visits, pulling in, he estimated, about $500,000 a year.
“They are not savvy about addiction medicine, don’t follow patients very closely, don’t do urine testing and overprescribe,” he said. “That’s how buprenorphine became a street drug in our area.” https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/health/in-demand-in-clinics-and-on-the-street-bupe-can-be-savior-or-menace.html (4)
“In the early days of Suboxone, with Reckitt Benckiser barely marketing its own drug, Dr. Kolodny, then a New York City health official, crisscrossed the city with colleagues to spread the word about the new medication, entice public hospitals to try it with $10,000 rewards and urge doctors to get certified.”
Since at least 2005, you have been marketing buprenorphine as if you had a personal stake in the drug, to government institutions and agencies including prisons, public hospitals, and rehabilitation facilities (2). In the fall of 2013, you were appointed Chief Medical Officer (5), of the largest chain of non-profit detox/rehab facilities in the USA (cited for questionable practices and abuse from at least 2012-2015) (6) called Phoenix House, which received $131 million in June 2013 (7), championing the use of MAT, or “Medication Assisted Treatment”. I wonder which drug Phoenix House used?
Since you often cite the United States vs. Purdue Pharma (2007) settlement in your interviews and writings, perhaps you saw an opportunity to expand the use of buprenorphine by targeting and demeaning chronic pain patients as mere “addicts”.
It was odd to me in researching that incident, in the official “Purdue Guilty Plea” document (8), the very words they were condemned for, claiming OxyContin to be “less addictive” and “less subject to abuse and diversion” (8), appear to be the exact words you use time and again when describing the benefits of buprenorphine (2).
Kolodny reminds his colleagues of the drug’s advantages. He stresses that bupe in the form of Suboxone is safe and almost impossible to abuse, a huge selling point at many of the clinics they will visit. Suboxone has a second active ingredient in the mix, he explains, an anti-overdose drug called naloxone.
It does nothing if you take bupe as directed. But if you sniff bupe or inject it or otherwise try to pack enough into your bloodstream to get high, the naloxone acts like a chemical booby trap, erasing the effects of any opiate, bupe included, and bringing on sweaty, nauseating withdrawal. “That’s the last time you’ll do it,” Kolodny says dryly. https://www.wired.com/2005/04/bupe/
In 2016, your organization, PROP (Physicians for Responsible Opiate Prescribing), got the ear of the CDC and helped to write the now-infamous, misinformed, and rushed guidelines for prescribing opiates. While these guidelines were fairly general in nature, they have been used as a springboard for countless pieces of state legislation and DEA investigations, which has, in turn, led to the above-mentioned abuse and abandonment of chronic pain patients and doctors, as well as opiate shortages in hospitals and ERs (The DEA, in an attempt to prevent diversion of opiates to the black market, has cut production by an incredible 45% in the past 2 years). I imagine that suits you just fine, since you have publicly stated you believe opiates should be discontinued for all but the dying and post-major surgery “for a few days” (https://www.ket.org/opioids/inside-opioid-addiction-10-questions-with-dr-andrew-kolodny/), and that “more treatment” is needed (https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/8/3/16079772/opioid-epidemic-drug-overdoses), i.e. MAT/Suboxone clinics like Phoenix House.
You have hailed local municipalities and states in their further pursuit of legal action against American Big Pharma, the companies who make such things as Vicodin and Percocet, but not Suboxone/buprenorphine (which is also an opiate), which is made by an overseas company, Reckitt Benckiser, or Naloxone (Narcan), which is produced in a nasal spray exclusively by Amphastar Pharmaceuticals (10), a relatively new company founded in California in 1996 (11), whose stock (and Narcan prices) has been rising quite a bit, lately (12, 13). Are you truly against the use of opioids, or just the ones that help pain?
Although your policies, based on inaccurate data (14-15) https://www.acsh.org/news/2017/10/12/opioid-epidemic-6-charts-designed-deceive-you-11935 (15), and http://www.mdmag.com/journals/pain-management/2012/october-november-2012/just-how-responsible-is-prop, have been wildly ineffective at stopping heroin/fentanyl overdoses; although you are not a pharmacologist, opiate researcher, pain doctor, pain patient, surgeon, or even general practitioner; although you ran a private clinic for a short time in 2005 (as far as I’ve been able to learn) that dispensed buprenorphine/Suboxone, you have, for the majority of your career as far as I can tell, been a policy-maker and not directly involved with addiction patients or chronic pain patients whom you recently claimed were simply addicts who needed compassion and “treatment” (and, presumably, Suboxone).
“Many Americans are truly convinced that opioids are helping them. They can’t get out of the bed without them.”
“Policy makers were told by industry-funded pain organizations not to penalize pain patients because of drug abusers. We realized that this wasn’t true. We don’t have these two distinct groups, one for pain patients and the other for drug abusers.” https://www.kolmac.com/2015/12/qa-dr-andrew-kolodny-chief-medical-officer-phoenix-house/ (15a)
You are cited and quoted in an impressive number of articles and interviews as a compassionate person who wants to see people and their families heal from the devastation of addiction, which is why it surprised me to find quotes from you that didn’t seem, well, “nice.”
It is the FDA’s role to vigilantly regulate the approval, labeling, and promotion of pharmaceutical products, not that of counties or municipalities. County and municipal lawyers are inadequately qualified to make or enforce federal drug policy, and these lawsuits serve as a vehicle for local governments to seek revenue through ill-informed measures under the guise of drug abuse prevention. In a May 30,2014, interview with FDA Week, a CLAAD spokesman voiced these positions and expressed concern that these lawsuits are part of “a trend that will distract us from the real meaningful approaches to reducing prescription drug abuse.”
After reading the interview, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP)and Chief Medical Officer of Phoenix House, contacted CLAAD via telephone to condemn its comments. During this conversation, Kolodny threatened that the Internal Revenue Service would revoke CLAAD’s tax-exempt status when alerted to the comments, which he believes conflict with CLAAD’s charitable mission. CLAAD takes these false allegations and threats very seriously, and responded in a letter which is publicly available for view on our website.
Critics who categorically dispute the motives of organizations like CLAAD and its diverse coalition members are, at best, narrowly focused. Their zealotry reveals their otherwise undisclosed health insurance industry bias. At worst, they endanger the lives of people who live with pain and other conditions that can require controlled substances by stifling access to quality care. http://paindr.com/claad-and-phoenix-house-square-off/ (16)
Anyone who questions your authority, expertise, policies, or the efficacy of your pet drug, buprenorphine, is loudly dismissed by you as uneducated (17), addicted (15a), or corrupt (15a, 18), regardless of how closely they actually work with addicts and pain patients (17).
But Dr. Kolodny, I have nothing left to lose — your policies and attitudes have directly impacted my health, my freedom, my ability to be a parent, my work, my hobbies, my family, my finances, my friends, and my personhood. I have no problem announcing to the public, as loudly as I can, “The Emperor is not wearing any clothes!”
*This article was originally written in 2015. It has since been updated with new, groundbreaking information and facts.
Previously titled, “On Opioids: America’s Drug Addictions and the Wacky Laws that Perpetuate Them.” See also: PROPaganda: Part 1 and Part 2; An Open Letter to Dr. Kolodny; A Rock and a Hard Place; and Strangulation on Medicine Two years ago, a little silver car sat parked outside our home. As the sun was going down an ambulance, police cruiser, and firetruck suddenly arrived to pull an unconscious young woman with a bobbing blonde ponytail out from the driver side of the car, a bottle of heroin found next to her. We didn’t even know anyone was inside the vehicle. I never saw that young woman again, and the police came to impound her car a few days later.
Last July, I sat in the small chapel at a local funeral home staring at the body of my husband’s cousin. Only 29 years old, living less than a mile from our house, married and a daddy-to-be, and there he lay in an open coffin looking sound asleep. After months of staying clean he had found a dealer in the apartment complex he and his wife had just moved in to. That night he took heroin, unknowingly laced with fentanyl, for the last time.
In 2013, Ohio Senator Mike DeWine decried heroin use as “a statewide epidemic.” (1) A rising tide of heroin-related deaths totaled over 900 for Ohio in 2013, a sharp increase from previous years that showed no signs of leveling off or decreasing (1). Heroin is cheap, easy to get, and often deadly (1). Heroin use is also linked to prescription narcotics, which studies (2) show has decreased in rates of abuse in my area (heroin and fentanyl have continued to rise), ostensibly due to tougher federal and state laws (3) implemented last year that limit their prescription by practitioners.
Many times a person will experience legitimate pain, be prescribed a narcotic, get hooked on the high, and then turn to heroin when their prescription is over and they can’t get a refill (2). (*New information and stats show this commonly held narrative is overwhelmingly false. The vast majority of those abusing prescription drugs ALREADY had a history of drug or alcohol abuse.) Heroin is essentially morphine, a drug (morphine, not heroin) commonly used in emergency rooms for severe pain (5). It is one of the strongest opioids available (5) and it is a major problem that people are taking the leap from prescriptions like Vicodin and Percocet (hydrocodone and oxycodone) to street heroin. (*It is actually not one of the strongest opioids available) While lawmakers are right to be concerned about prescription opioid abuse (*which has been decreasing since it peaked in 2012), they are not focusing efforts on the much larger problem of heroin abuse, and the sad results are astounding.
Last May 2014, The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a component of The National Institutes of Health, presented the following information at the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control (4).
“To illustrate this point, the total number of opioid pain relievers prescribed in the United States has skyrocketed in the past 25 years (Fig. 1). The number of prescriptions for opioids (like hydrocodone and oxycodone products) have escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013, with the United States their biggest consumer globally, accounting for almost 100 percent of the world total for hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and 81 percent for oxycodone (e.g., Percocet).
This greater availability of opioid (and other) prescribed drugs has been accompanied by alarming increases in the negative consequences related to their abuse. For example, the estimated number of emergency department visits involving nonmedical use of opioid analgesics increased from 144,600 in 2004 to 305,900 in 2008; treatment admissions for primary abuse of opiates other than heroin increased from one percent of all admissions in 1997 to five percent in 2007; and overdose deaths due to prescription opioid pain relievers have more than tripled in the past 20 years, escalating to 16,651 deaths in the United States in 2010.
Pretty scary-sounding stuff, but notice in the argument above words like “opiates other than heroin” which may or may not include prescription narcotics, and may in fact include Suboxone *also here (more on that in minute). Although the number of prescription opioids has increased over 10 years, the percentage of abuse represents only a fraction of the number of people taking these medicines, 305,900 to 207 million. Compare that to the numbers of heroin users which is double the amount of prescription narcotics abusers, “The number of past-year heroin users in the United States nearly doubled between 2005 and 2012, from 380,000 to 670,000” (4). Policymakers have put the emphasis on the wrong syllable and no one is being helped.
Indeed, the recent laws our country and states have implemented to purportedly alleviate the “problem” of prescription opioid abuse, have only exacerbated the very real problem of heroin abuse, which is reaching epic proportions around the nation (4). I recently spoke with a local 25-year veteran chemical dependency counselor that I’ll call “Glinda” (not her real name). Poor Glinda was very frustrated with the current system of treatment for drug abusers, telling me quite frankly, “People are dying because of this new policy!” What policy was she referring to?
Glinda informed me that up until 5-6 years ago, the standard form of treatment for heroin users who wanted to be free was a very selective residential treatment program. After being selected for treatment, the heroin addict was admitted to a local hospital that partnered with the chemical dependency clinic. The patient stayed in the hospital for 3-4 days, being observed and weaned off all drugs. By the end of those 3-4 days, the patient was completely drug-free and then sent to a residential treatment facility for another 28 days, at least. Although it was not 100% fool-proof, Glinda admitted, “We had a pretty high success rate.” This program had been in place since 1960 in Dayton, Ohio, until about 5 years ago when drug companies came out with Suboxone (also known as buprenorphine), a drug created to help users stop their opiate addictions.
A slightly less intense form of synthesized heroin, *Suboxone/bupenorphine is actually stronger, and therefore more addictive than heroin. Heroin has a relative strength of 5x potency of oral morphine, bupenorphine has a relative strength of 40x, while hydrocodone (Vicodin) has a potency strength of -100x and oxycodone (the generic, short-acting version of Purdue Pharma’s oxycontin) has about 1x!). Although touted as “life-saving” for the Naloxone additive it contains, Suboxone is still a powerful narcotic/opioid with the same potential for addiction.
Chemical dependency counselors hate it.”
What went on behind the scenes one can only guess at, but, Glinda told me, lawyers, policymakers, lobbyists, and state and city medical boards all jumped on the Suboxone bandwagon (6) as a cheaper alternative to hospital detox programs. Laws were passed to ensure Medicaid would pay for new Suboxone and methadone clinics, which popped up over the city of Dayton and state of Ohio like daffodils in spring. According to Glinda, these clinics simply hand out free Suboxone or methadone (an opiate drug even stronger than heroin) to any user who comes in asking. They are limited to one round a day or week depending on the clinic. Users are supposed to go through counseling before they can have the drugs, but Glinda said, “Many times this ‘counseling’ is nothing more than an hour-long video.”
Glinda told me that Suboxone users sometimes take an additional anti-anxiety medicine with benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, or Ativan, to get back the extra high Suboxone purposely leaves out, often resulting in the user’s death. However, many other times users will take their free drugs and just sell them on the street for heroin. “It may be a cheaper ‘solution'”, Glinda said, “but no one is getting clean. Chemical dependency councilors hate it.” The article, The Misguided Obsession with Heroin / Opiate Maintenance Drugs (Suboxone, Subutex, Buprenorphine, Methadone) (7), from The Clean Slate Addiction Site, echoes Glinda’s concerns,
“Most of the research on drugs like Suboxone (a popular formulation of Buprenorphine and Naloxone) checks the effectiveness of the drug over a 12 week period. That’s it. And as stated above, long term results are essentially unknown. Also, most of the “success” that’s found with drugs like Bupe and Methadone is that people who take it stay engaged in treatment programs longer than those who just receive counseling (without drugs).
If the NESARC results from heroin and prescription opiate users are to be factored into the equation, we might decide less treatment is better. After all, those opiate and heroin addicts who received treatment had MUCH longer periods of abuse and dependence before actually remitting. Which in itself means more occasions of use, which means more opportunity to overdose.”
At the same time safer (compared with street heroin) and documented prescription narcotics are being locked down, marijuana (8) is becoming legalized in various forms around the nation and addicts get their stronger-than-prescription-narcotics Suboxone or methadone free, allegedly to help them get off narcotics. By severely limiting the prescription of legitimate narcotics, not only have policymakers been contradictory, they have effectively tied the hands of America’s doctors and punished law-abiding citizens in real pain, in order to prevent them from potentially becoming law-breakers. But we also have laws in place that essentially reward law-breakers by giving them free drugs, as a way of trying to make them law-abiding citizens. We are making more heroin addicts with these policies, not fewer, and the numbers sadly corroborate.
After speaking with Glinda for over an hour, my final question was simply, “What can we do to change this?” Her response, “Activism is the key. Contacting policymakers including county commissioners and boards of health (these links are for Montgomery County and Ohio), and pointing out the facts that these [Suboxone and methadone] clinics just are not working. Then maybe we can help save some lives.” Or, in the words of one of my favorite films…”People are dying! Would you please shut down the system?”
Sources (in order of appearance)