The heroin epidemic was once mostly immune from politics. Not anymore.

June 27
The Buckeye State has one of the nation’s highest rates of drug overdose deaths — and a Senate race that has sparked a political fight over its opioid crisis.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman is crisscrossing the state, touting a bill he co-authored that attempts to blunt the epidemic by promoting drug treatment and recovery. His opponent, former Democratic governor Ted Strickland, claims Portman isn’t backing up his proposals with the funding they need. The men are accusing each other of exploiting for political gain a public health crisis that killed more than 2,500 people in Ohio in 2014.

In recent years, opioid abuse has been an issue of rare bipartisan consensus and, until recently, has been mostly free of political infighting. Republicans and Democrats nationwide have banded together to try to fight opioid abuse by moving away from punitive measures and toward treatment and prevention. Portman’s bill, which was co-sponsored by members of both parties, passed the Senate 94 to 1 and has moved into conference with the House. It would authorize $725 million in grants but doesn’t offer funding; Congress must approve any allocations.

In Ohio and other states hit hard by the opioid epidemic, lawmakers up for reelection are eager to show that they are working to combat the problem. Portman’s bill garnered the support of GOP Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and others who are in close races in states that have been ravaged by opioid abuse.

The rate of heroin overdose death more than quadrupled nationwide from 2002 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 165,000 people died by overdosing on prescription pain medication from 1999 to 2014.

Many congressional campaigns are trying to walk a fine line: touting efforts to fight the epidemic while attempting not to politicize an issue of life and death. But here in Ohio’s hotly contested race, politics have sneaked in.

Strickland focuses part of his attack on Portman’s approach to the issue last year: The senator lobbied to put tens of millions of dollars to fight drugs into a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill — then voted against the bill.

“I think he’s being a hypocrite because he’s not acknowledging, as he talks about this great need, that he actually voted against needed resources for these communities to provide prevention and treatment services,” Strickland said of Portman in an interview.

“Sen. Portman has traveled the state talking about his concerns and he’s doing it, I think, in a very overtly political way,” Strickland said.

Portman argues that it’s Strickland who is politicizing drugs in a state with a fatal overdose crisis. The senator said he has never supported an omnibus bill because he believes they are opaque and not good governance. Portman also points to his vote for an amendment to his anti-opioid bill that passed the Senate that would have provided $600 million in emergency funds to fight opioid abuse, a measure the Senate rejected.

“To make it political, I think, is a mistake on his part, because he’s had a lousy record on the same area,” Portman said of Strickland. “I don’t know why he’d want to get into that back-and-forth.”

Portman, who co-founded the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati in 1996 and sponsored bills aiming to combat drug use in the 1990s when he was in the House, said fighting drug abuse has been one of the greatest causes of his political career. He emotionally recounted speaking with parents and family members of people who died from overdoses, and said he still has a bracelet given to him more than 20 years ago by a mother whose son overdosed and who asked Portman for help. Portman said heroin, prescription drugs and Fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid that is often cut into heroin — come up consistently in talks with constituents.

“This issue is something I have done representing the people of Ohio for my whole career, and it’s important to talk about it,” he said.

Portman’s campaign has touted his record on combating drug abuse in a series of four ads released over the past few weeks. One minute-long spot opens with a young woman named Holly singing the national anthem and cuts to her mother speaking about how Holly died of a drug overdose.

“We lose 129 kids a day to heroin,” Holly’s mother, Tonda DaRe, says with a pained voice, “and the only person I’ve seen standing up there screaming almost daily is Senator Portman.”

None of the ads mention Strickland. Portman has spoken on the Senate floor each week about opioid abuse since his bill passed in March. Earlier this month, he took to the floor on the birthday of the musical artist Prince, whose death in May was caused by a drug overdose. Portman ticked off instances of overdose deaths in Ohio this month, including a man found dead in a creek and a 14-month-old who ingested heroin that belonged to his father.

Strickland is also showcasing his record, saying he allocated “thousands of dollars” to drug treatment programs while governor, even though it was “during the greatest recession since the Great Depression.” Strickland said he created a statewide prescription-drug task force to try to fight the overprescribing of addictive painkillers.

According to the Akron Beacon-Journal, both men have called for cuts in drug treatment programs in the past. Facing a $7 billion deficit as governor in 2009, Strickland slashed funding for drug and alcohol programs by 28 percent. Portman sketched out a 3.6 percent reduction in drug treatment programs at two federal agencies as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush.

Portman’s campaign said that, adjusted for inflation, Bush’s 2008 budget requested the same amount President Obama did in his 2017 budget. Strickland’s campaign said that during his time as governor, he increased funding for the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services by 4 percent.

In New Hampshire, where at least 420 people died of drug overdoses last year, the opioid epidemic became an issue this year for presidential candidates in the state who spoke openly about how addiction affected their families. Heroin also has taken center stage in the Senate race between Ayotte and Gov. Maggie Hassan (D).

Ayotte co-sponsored Portman’s bill and has said combating drug abuse is one of her top legislative priorities. She introduced a bill that would allow first responders and family members to administer Naloxone, a drug that can reverse a heroin overdose.

One Nation, a conservative group, released an ad this month hitting Hassan’s record on heroin and citing the resignation of Hassan’s drug czar, who came under fire for an alleged lack of outreach. It ran for 10 days. Ayotte said on Twitter that the group should take down the ad.

Here in Columbus, Marcie Seidel, executive director of Drug Free Action Alliance, said she doesn’t like seeing drugs become a hot-button political issue.

“It really doesn’t need to be in the political realm, and we’re very much against it being in the political realm,” Seidel said. “This is a public policy piece that cuts across demographics, and everyone should be marching together.”

Two Senators Ask Federal Government to Help Drug-Dependent Newborns

Two Senators Ask Federal Government to Help Drug-Dependent Newborns

Two U.S. senators are asking the federal government to address the growing problem of drug-dependent newborns, Reuters reports. They say thousands of infants are born each year to mothers who used opioids during pregnancy.

Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania called for hearings on why a federal law that directs states to protect drug-dependent newborns is not being enforced. Senator Charles Schumer of New York wants the Obama Administration to increase funding to help drug-dependent babies.

An investigation by Reuters found 110 babies and toddlers whose mothers used opioids during pregnancies and who died under preventable circumstances. In each case, the babies recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital, but were sent home to families not equipped to care for them.

The number of babies treated for the drug-withdrawal syndrome known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) has almost quadrupled in the last decade, according to a study published earlier this year.

Babies born with NAS undergo withdrawal from the addictive drugs their mothers took during pregnancy, such as oxycodone, morphine or hydrocodone. NAS affected seven babies for every 1,000 admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit in 2004. That number jumped to 27 infants per 1,000 by 2013.

A federal law calls on states to safeguard these infants after they leave the hospital, but that effort is failing, Reuters notes.

Senator Schumer wrote a leader to the acting administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, urging the agency to direct a portion of the $47 million allocated in the recent federal budget for drug abuse programs toward helping opioid-exposed babies.

“It’s become a sad fact that the latest victims of the prescription drug crisis in this country are the most vulnerable in our society, innocent babies,” Schumer said in a news release.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services told Reuters the senator’s request is being considered.

Most People Who Overdose on Prescription Opioids Continue to Receive the Drugs

Most People Who Overdose on Prescription Opioids Continue to Receive the Drugs

A new study finds 90 percent of people who overdose on prescription opioids continue to receive prescriptions for the drugs.

“We found the results both surprising and concerning,” lead author Dr. Marc R. Larochelle of Boston Medical Center told Reuters. “Stopping opioids alone is not a solution,” he said. “In addition to treatment of any potential opioid use disorder, we need to communicate alternative options for treatment of chronic pain, and all modalities should be considered, including non-opioid medications, physical therapy, and complementary and alternative treatments.”

The researchers analyzed data from a national commercial insurance claims database. They identified almost 3,000 patients who were taking long-term opioids for chronic pain not related to cancer, who experienced a nonfatal overdose between 2002 and 2012.

More than half of the 90 percent of patients who continued to receive opioid prescriptions after their overdose got them from the same doctor, the researchers report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Seven percent of patients who overdosed had a second overdose, the study found. Two years after the first overdose, patients who still had an opioid prescription were twice as likely to have a second overdose, compared with those who no longer had an opioid prescription. The risk of a repeat overdose was greatest for patients taking the highest opioid doses.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Jessica Gregg of Central City Concern in Portland, Oregon, said many providers do not know when a patient overdoses. “There are no widespread systems in place, either within health plans or through governmental organizations, for notifying providers when overdoses occur,” she told Reuters.

“Patients who have misused their prescriptions are unlikely to report that misuse (and their subsequent overdose) to their prescriber out of concern that the provider will terminate their prescriptions,” Gregg said.

Breaking Bad… not for the kids.


Toys R Us ‘Breaks Bad’ with New Crystal Meth Toys

At least one toy maker is dreaming of a Walter White Christmas.©AMC/courtesy Everett Collection

Parents aren’t happy that the toy store chain is selling drug dealer dolls, complete with bags of crystal meth and sacks of cash.

Susan Schrivjer, a mom from Fort Myers, Fla., was a fan of the award-winning AMC show Breaking Bad. “I thought it was a great show,” she told a local TV station recently. “It was riveting!”

Even so, she thinks it’s not such a great idea to sell action figures based on the show’s notorious crystal meth dealers Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in a store where the customer base is families with young children. So last week Schrivjer launched a petition criticizing Toys R Us for selling “a Breaking Bad doll, complete with a detachable sack of cash and a bag of meth, alongside children’s toys [as] a dangerous deviation from the [company’s] family friendly values.”

The petition, which asks Toys R Us to stop selling the dolls, had attracted signatures from more than 2,200 supporters as of Monday morning. The “Breaking Bad”-Toys R Us protest picked up extra steam after Schrivjer appeared on The Today Show this weekend, making her case that “anything to do with drugs” should not be sold in a toy store. She has no problem with the figures being sold by e-retailers and shops that are less likely to be frequented by children, such as adult novelty stores. (For what it’s worth, Breaking Bad figures are also sold by Barnes & NobleWalmart, and other major retailers. Walmart even sells a pinkBreaking Bad teddy bear.)

Toys R Us has released a statement clarifying that theBreaking Bad packaging “clearly notes that the items are intended for ages 15 and up” and that they’re only sold “in the adult action figure area of our stores.” Yet Today Show staffers found the drug dealer figures within arm’s reach of G.I. Joe dolls, Super Mario Brothers figures, and other products of obvious interest to kids. Schrivjer and her supporters are of the opinion that the Breaking Bad figures shouldn’t be sold anywhere in a toy store: “Its violent content and celebration of the drug trade make this collection unsuitable to be sold alongside Barbie dolls and Disney characters.”

The controversy pops up at a time when sales of traditional toys have been slumping—and therefore so have stores whose bread-and-butter is selling those traditional toys. With the exception of Lego, which has been on an amazingly awesome roll and recently became the largest toy company in the world, many iconic toy brands have been struggling. Mattel sales declined during the last year’s all-important fourth quarter (when winter holidays take place), and the company’s latest report shows that Barbie salescontinue to dip. One of the biggest reasons cited for dismal sales is that children are increasingly drawn toelectronics over traditional toys.

It’s understandable, then, that toy makers and toy stores have taken steps to sell more of what kids want today (video game and electronics sections at these stores have exploded), and also to try to expand their customer bases by manufacturing, marketing, and selling products that are for “more mature” folks. Hence, the September decision by Toys R Us to enter a global partnership with Claire’s, a jewelry and accessory brand favored by tween and teen girls—a demographic that hasn’t had much interest in shopping at Toys R Us of late. By the end of 2014, Claire’s shops will be set up within a dozen U.S. Toys R Us locations, and more are expected down the road.

The desire to woo older customers also provides some explanation for why the toy chain would be selling drug dealer dolls, as well as why it would have an “adult action figure area” to begin with.


Synthetic Marijuana

Synthetic Marijuana-Related ER Visits More Than Doubled in One Year

Emergency team rushes a patient down the hospital hallway on a gurney

new government report finds emergency rooms visits related to synthetic marijuana more than doubled between 2010 and 2011, HealthDay reports.

Synthetic marijuana, also known as “K2” or “Spice,” is especially dangerous because there is a widespread misconception these drugs are safe and legal, according to Pamela Hyde, Administrator at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). “These injury reports compel us to get the word out to all segments of the community — especially youth — that these products can cause significant harm,” she noted in a news release.

Emergency rooms reported more than 28,500 visits linked to synthetic marijuana in 2011, up from 11,400 in 2010, according to the report. Among teens ages 12 to 17, the number of visits linked to synthetic marijuana rose from about 3,800 to nearly 7,600 during that year. Among young adults ages 18 to 20, ER visits linked to synthetic marijuana rose from about 2,000 to more than 8,000.

Short-term effects of synthetic marijuana include loss of control, lack of pain response, increased agitation, pale skin, seizures, vomiting, profuse sweating, uncontrolled/spastic body movements, elevated blood pressure, heart rate and palpitations. The drug takes effect in three to five minutes, and the high lasts from one to eight hours. In addition to physical signs of use, users may experience severe paranoia, delusions, hallucinations and increased agitation. Its long-term effects are unknown.

The Synthetic Drug Prevention Act of 2012 specifically prohibits the sale or possession of some types of synthetic marijuana. The Drug Enforcement Administration and nearly all states have also taken some regulatory action against these products once they have been identified, according to SAMHSA. “However manufacturers of these compounds continue to modify their chemical structures in an attempt to evade current laws,” the agency notes.