The United States is going through what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called the worst drug addiction epidemic in the country’s history. Overdose deaths from opioid painkillers —such as OxyContin and Vicodin—have more than quadrupled in the past 15 years, resulting in a total of more than 150,000 Americans dying from their battles with drug dependency.
In “Opioid Wars,” Fault Lines investigates the main drivers of this epidemic and the reasons why the federal government continues to approve new opioid painkillers in spite of the human toll they’ve already taken. The film airs Saturday, October 25, at 7 pm Eastern time/4 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America.
This past Sunday more than a thousand people converged on Washington, D.C., to remember loved ones lost to opioid overdoses and compel the government, specifically the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to more strictly regulate the use of this class of painkillers. This was the second rally organized by Fed Up!, a national coalition of consumer advocacy organizations, medical experts, recovering addicts and friends and family members of victims that’s calling for “an immediate, coordinated and comprehensive federal response to the epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose deaths.”
Morgan Gricar, who made the trip to D.C. from Florida, was among the hundreds of protesters calling for stricter opioid regulations. She recently kicked a heroin addiction that began not long after she was prescribed opioid painkillers five years ago for a minor knee injury. “I realized heroin was much cheaper than buying these pills,” she said. In fact, 80 percent of heroin users previously took prescription opioids.
“Our generation's overdose rate is three times higher than it was 10 years ago," Gricar added. "This needs to stop.”
Like Gricar, many of the protesters argue that opioid prescriptions are given out too easily, without conducting background checks on patients or assessing potential addiction problems.
Here are some scenes from the protest, as well as a sampling of the people who made their voices heard.
“We lost a bunch of friends from our neighborhood to heroin and opioids, so we’re raising awareness and education in our little community and want to spread it,” said Morgan Gricar (left), a Florida resident who until recently was battling heroin addiction. “All these people came from different parts of the country, some of them are recovering addicts, some of them have lost family members because of doctors are prescribing way too much. The FDA is doing nothing about it.”
Dolly Schriner Thomason (far left) of Manassas, VA, lost her 23-year-old daughter, Sandy Boswell, to a heroin overdose: “She started the medication because of a broken finger and eventually graduated to heroin. She died in September of 2012 after being clean for nine months. She was in a car accident, and the hospital prescribed her another opioid. And it kick started right again. She went right back into heroin, and she lived about two weeks after the accident.”
“Kerri was an amazing person—very loving, family oriented, loved her mother, loved her brother and friends. But unfortunately she just got caught up with the epidemic of opioids in prescription painkillers and heroin,” says Amanda Jane (center, in pink hat), who traveled to D.C. from Brockton, MA, to march on behalf of her friend Kerri Hedding, who died earlier this year. “It’s horrible. It wasn’t what she wanted to do. Not one time when she used it did she want to. It was a disorder, and it’s really hard. She was 24 years old.”
“I’m from Canada, and we’re having the same problems as the United States,” said Karen Graves, whose son Joshua passed away three years ago. “I just want to come support as much as I can. I lost my 21-year-old son to an accidental drug overdose on March 19, 2011, and we’re all fed up. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Canada or the United States.”
Dr. Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer at Phoenix House network of drug abuse and treatment centers and president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, addressed the crowd: “The message of the CDC has been very clear,” he said. “We might not be able to turn this epidemic around until the medical community—until doctors and dentists—start to prescribe more cautiously. Meanwhile, the FDA continues to approve new opioid painkillers and allows them to be marketed for common conditions. As this epidemic has worsened, they’ve actually opened the spigot to allow a steady stream of new opioids to be approved.”
Emails obtained via public records request in 2013 provide evidence that the director of the FDA’s Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Addiction Products sat on the steering committee of IMMPACT, a group that organized meetings between FDA staff, doctors and pharmaceutical companies to develop new ways of testing the safety and efficacy of painkillers. The meetings were financed by fees paid by more than a dozen drug companies, each of which forked over up to $35,000 to attend.
Last week Fed Up! sent a letter to Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the FDA. It said, in part: “We are especially frustrated by the Food and Drug Administration’s continued approval of new, dangerous, high-dose opioid analgesics that are fueling high rates of addiction and overdose deaths. After careful consideration we have come to believe that without new leadership at FDA the opioid crisis will continue unabated.” The letter specifically questions the FDA’s decision in October 2013 to approve a new painkiller called Zohydro, even after the FDA’s advisory committee rejected its initial drug application.
Dr. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at Johns Hopkins University, also addressed the assembled: “Our federal government is here to serve the people,” he said. “And when it comes to this, one of the greatest public health challenges in our generation, we need to allocate more funding for evidence-based treatment and prevention programs. We need to ensure that public and private health insurance carriers adequately reimburse evidence-based addiction treatment programs.”
In "Opioid Wars," Fault Lines examines the FDA approved a powerful new opioid painkiller, Zohydro, in the midst of the worst epidemic of prescription drug addiction and overdose in US history. The film airs on Al Jazeera America Saturday, October 25, at 7 p.m. Eastern time. It will air again that evening at 10 p.m. Eastern and Sunday, October 26, at 2 a.m. Eastern.