New Victims In The War On Painkillers

01/11/2013 08:54 am ET | Updated Mar 13, 2013
  • Radley Balko Senior Writer and Investigative Reporter, The Huffington Post

Last year I wrote a three-part series for Huffington Post that asked some questions about the latest panic over opioid painkillers, and its effect on pain patients, doctors, and medical treatment. I received a deluge of email from people in pain who were desperately seeking treatment. In fact I'm still getting those emails. I got one this morning.

Before that series ran, after increasing pressure form the DEA, Purdue Pharma, maker of the most popular opioid Oxycontin, had already switched the drug's formula to make it much more difficult to abuse. As Maia Szalavitz pointed out last summer at Time, the effects were dramatic: "OxyContin went from being the primary drug of abuse for 36% of prescription-drug misusers to just 13% about 21 months later." There were also some predictable negative consequences, like sending addicts back to street drugs like heroin. But if the new formula at least stopped the abuse of prescription painkillers, perhaps that might at least ease the pressure from politicians and law enforcement on pain patients and pain specialists.

But that hasn't happened either. In fact, it seems to have gotten quite a bit worse. From The New York Times:

Some of the most common and most powerful prescription painkillers on the market will be restricted sharply in the emergency rooms at New York City's 11 public hospitals, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Thursday in an effort to crack down on what he called a citywide and national epidemic of prescription drug abuse.

Under the new city policy, most public hospital patients will no longer be able to get more than three days' worth of narcotic painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet. Long-acting painkillers, including OxyContin, a familiar remedy for chronic backache and arthritis, as well as Fentanyl patches and methadone, will not be dispensed at all. And lost, stolen or destroyed prescriptions will not be refilled.

City officials said the policy was aimed at reducing the growing dependency on painkillers and preventing excess amounts of drugs from being taken out of medicine chests and sold on the street or abused by teenagers and others who want to get high.

"Abuse of prescription painkillers in our city has increased alarmingly," Mr. Bloomberg said in announcing the new policy at Elmhurst Hospital Center, a public hospital in Queens.

So we now have a politician directly dictating medical policy to doctors at city hospitals. Some of us have been raising red flags about Bloomberg's ban on smoking in privately-owned bars and restaurants, his ban on trans-fats, the farcical ban on large soda sizes, and his other paternalistic policies for years now. This is what happens when government decides it should have the power to protect us from ourselves. Let's be clear, here. This policy is going to cause needless suffering. People who genuinely, legitimately need pain medication aren't going to be able to get it. And guess what? Addicts and thrill-seeking teenagers will find other ways to get high.

Since the announcement, I've seen some reaction on the Internet expressing hope that Blooomberg is afflicted with some chronic pain condition, so he'll be able to feel firsthand the suffering he's causing with this policy. I wouldn't go that far, though I understand the sentiment. But that also misses an important component of this policy: It only applies to the city's public hospitals. Which means it will largely be poor people who are forced to suffer pain that can easily be treated. If Bloomberg's ever afflicted with long-term, chronic pain, he'll certainly get all the medication he needs to be comfortable.

One telltale sign that we've entered a bona-fide drug war hysteria is when government officials start treating people suspected of abusing whatever drug is causing the latest mass case of the vapors not as human beings--as citizens with rights--but as an enemy. Two stories that made headlines in the last week suggest that we're in a full-blown painkiller panic. First in Utah:

A man says Vernal police disrupted an intimate moment of mourning with his deceased wife of 58 years when they searched his house for her prescription medication without a warrant within minutes of her death.

Barbara Alice Mahaffey died of colon cancer in her bedroom last May. Ben D. Mahaffey, 80, said he was distraught and trying to make sure his wife's body would be taken to the funeral home with dignity, when he says officers insisted he help them look for the drugs.

"I was holding her hand saying goodbye when all the intrusion happened," he told the Deseret News.

Barbara Mahaffey died at 12:35 a.m. with Mahaffey, a Navy medic in the Korean War, and his friend, an EMT, at her side. In addition to police, a mortician and a hospice worker arrived at the home about 12:45 a.m., Mahaffey said. He said he doesn't know how police came to be there.

"I was indignant to think you can't even have a private moment. All these people were there and they're not concerned about her or me. They're concerned about the damn drugs. Isn't that something?" Mahaffey said.

Mahaffey said he was treated as if he were going to sell the painkillers, which included OxyContin, oxycodone and morphine, on the street.

Note the utter lack of compassion, the inability to see a grieving husband as anything other than a potential drug dealer. Note the priorities on display. The most important thing the cops had to do that day was get those drugs out of that house. Preventing someone from using Barbara Mahaffey's pills to get high, or preventing Ben Mahaffey from--God forbid--using pain medication not prescribed to him at some point in the future, was more important than giving a widower a last moment of dignity to say goodbye to his wife of 58 years.

The other, even sadder story comes from Oklahoma.

A Pauls Valley family is forced to deal with tragedy after a 33-year-old mother dies from a medical condition while being held at the Garvin County jail.

The victim in this case is Jamie Lynn Russell.

Jamie also used the last name of Fisher.

Her death came just hours after she went to the hospital seeking help for severe abdominal pain.

"Jamie was seeking help; she was in extreme pain," family friend Kemper Kimberlin said.

Hospital staff reported Jamie wouldn't cooperate, in too much pain to even lie down, so employees asked a Pauls Valley police officer to assist.

Unfortunately, when police found two prescription pills that didn't belong to Jamie, police took her to jail for drug possession.

That's where Jamie sat for less than two hours before being found unresponsive.

"There is nothing my staff in the jail could've done differently," Garvin County sheriff Larry Rhodes said.

Well of course there is, Sheriff Rhodes. You could have exercised some discretion, and not thrown a clearly ill pregnant woman in jail over two pills.. Russell died from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. It seems fairly likely that had she not been carted off to jail, her condition could have been detected and treated. The sheriff added, "It's very regrettable for the family. My heart and prayers go out to them."

Regrettable. I guess that's one way to describe what happened to Jamie Russell. Another might be collateral damage.