WASHINGTON – A group of Senate Democrats has asked the Drug Enforcement Administration to lower opioid production quotas for 2018 in an attempt to ease the painkiller crisis that has plagued states across the country.
The DEA agreed to a similar request last year, reducing national opioid quotas by about 25 percent, the first major quota reduction in more than 20 years. Despite DEA’s decision, production of opioid medicine like oxycodone remains at historically high levels. According to a July 11 letter to the DEA from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and 14 other Democrats, oxycodone production was 55 percent higher in 2017 than in 2007.
“In order to effectively combat this raging crisis, stakeholders – especially our federal oversight agencies – must use every tool available to prevent the flood of addictive narcotic painkillers onto the market that can result in misuse, abuse, and diversion,” the senators wrote, adding later that “further reductions, through DEA’s existing quota-setting authority, are necessary to rein in this epidemic.”
The group, which included Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), whose state has been particularly ravaged by the opioid crisis, believes that lowering quotas will help drive down overdose death rates. At the same time, some medical professionals, like Cato Institute scholar Jeffrey Singer, say that by limiting legal opioid access, lawmakers are driving pain-riddled patients to even more dangerous options on the black market, which could lead to heroin use.
According to the July 11 letter, the number of opioid pain relief prescriptions increased from 76 million in 1991 to more than 245 million in 2014. Overdose rates have also skyrocketed. In Vermont for example, a record high of 106 people died of opiate overdoses in 2016, and the state’s Department of Health estimates that 80 percent of Vermont heroin users started out abusing prescription-based painkillers.
Carol M. Smith, an associate professor of counseling at Marshall University in West Virginia, said in a recent interview that there is a correlation between increased access to abusive substances and addiction for troubled personalities. She supports the DEA lowering quotas.
“Will a reduction in the production of opioids contribute to a solution? Yes. Will it be the solution? No, but it will make a positive contribution,” she said.
Smith, who advises various health boards from a traumatic stress perspective, currently serves on a newly established board in Huntington, W.Va., for Marshall University to direct efforts on substance abuse addiction, particularly with opioids. She said it’s interesting that Durbin joined the group in sending the letter to the DEA, as he co-sponsored the Trauma-Informed Care for Children and Families Act of 2017, a Democratic-led bill meant to address trauma treatment for native populations. The legislation cites 14 different studies that show how traumatic stress is related to various self-destructive behaviors, including addiction and other activities that lead to early death.
The legislation details a 2017 finding that “abuse and maltreatment suffered as a child” is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and “opioid-related misuse as an adult.” The study recommended that trauma history and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms be addressed in opioid addiction treatment.
“There’s heavy overlap between trauma and addiction,” Smith said. “I think we have to go at this issue hammer and tongs, and anything we can do to work on from any angle possible needs to be done, with all intents and interests.”