Tagged Substance Abuse

Meth’s Resurgence Spotlights Lack Of Meds To Combat The Addiction

In 2016, news reports warned the public of an opioid epidemic gripping the nation.

But Madeline Vaughn, then a lead clinical intake coordinator at the Houston-based addiction treatment organization Council on Recovery, sensed something different was going on with the patients she checked in from the street.

Their behavior, marked by twitchy suspicion, a poor memory and the feeling that someone was following them, signaled that the people coming through the center’s doors were increasingly hooked on a different drug: methamphetamine.

“When you’re in the boots on the ground,” Vaughn said, “what you see may surprise you, because it’s not in the headlines.”

In the time since, it’s become increasingly clear that, even as the opioid epidemic continues, the toll of methamphetamine use, also known as meth or crystal meth, is on the rise, too.

The rate of overdose deaths involving the stimulant more than tripled from 2011 to 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

But unlike the opioid epidemic — for which medications exist to help combat addiction — medical providers have few such tools to help methamphetamine users survive and recover. A drug such as naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose, does not exist for meth. And there are no drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration that can treat a meth addiction.

“We’re realizing that we don’t have everything we might wish we had to address these different kinds of drugs,” said Dr. Margaret Jarvis, a psychiatrist and distinguished fellow for the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Meth revs up the human body, causing euphoria, elevated blood pressure and energy that enables users to go for days without sleeping or eating. In some cases, long-term use alters the user’s brain and causes psychotic symptoms that can take up to one year after the person has stopped using it to dissipate.

Overdosing can trigger heart attacks, strokes and seizures, which can make pinpointing the drug’s involvement difficult.

Meth users also tend to abuse other substances, which complicates first responders’ efforts to treat a patient in the event of an overdose, said Dr. David Persse, EMS physician director for Houston. With multiple drugs in a patient’s system, overdose symptoms may not neatly fit under the description for one substance.

“If we had five or six miracle drugs,” Persse said, to use immediately on the scene of the overdose, “it’s still gonna be difficult to know which one that patient needs.”

Research is underway to develop a medication that helps those with methamphetamine addiction overcome their condition. The National Institute on Drug Abuse Clinical Trials Network is testing a combination of naltrexone, a medication typically used to treat opioid and alcohol use disorders, and an antidepressant called bupropion.

And a team from the Universities of Kentucky and Arkansas created a molecule called lobeline that shows promise in blocking meth’s effects in the brain.

For now, though, existing treatments, such as the Matrix Model, a drug counseling technique, and contingency management, which offers patients incentives to stay away from drugs, are key options for what appears to be a meth resurgence, said Jarvis.

Illegal drugs never disappear from the street, she said. Their popularity waxes and wanes with demand. And as the demand for methamphetamine use increases, the gaps in treatment become more apparent.

Persse said he hasn’t seen a rise in the number of calls related to methamphetamine overdoses in his area. However, the death toll in Texas from meth now exceeds that of heroin.

Provisional death counts for 2017 showed methamphetamine claimed 813 lives in the Lone Star State. By comparison, 591 people died due to heroin.

The Drug Enforcement Administration reported that the price of meth is the lowest the agency has seen in years. It is increasingly available in the eastern region of the United States. Primary suppliers are Mexican drug cartels. And the meth on the streets is now more than 90 percent pure.

“The new methods [of making methamphetamine] have really altered the potency,” said Jane Maxwell, research professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s social work school. “So, the meth we’re looking at today is much more potent than it was 10 years ago.”

For Vaughn, who works as an outpatient therapist and treatment coordinator, these variables are a regular part of her daily challenge. So until the research arms her with something new, her go-to strategy is to use the available tools to tackle her patients’ methamphetamine addiction in layers.

She starts with writing assignments, then coping skills until they are capable of unpacking their trauma. Addiction is rarely the sole demon patients wrestle with, Vaughn said.

“Substance use is often a symptom for what’s really going on with someone,” she said.

Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Happy New Year! Welcome to 2019 and the 116th Congress! I hope everyone had a wonderful and restful break, because now the fun (or something in that neighborhood) starts again.

Democrats are raring to go now that the new class has been sworn in and Nancy Pelosi has retaken the House gavel. They’re setting the stage to put Republicans in the political hot seat with a vote to formally intervene in the Affordable Care Act lawsuit currently moving through the courts.

I’m pretty sure everyone at this point realizes that vowing to protect preexisting conditions was (and will be) a winning issue on the campaign trail. The Democrats’ move will (and, let’s be honest, is designed to) put the GOP in the awkward position of voting against those popular provisions.

The Washington Post: The New Congress: Pelosi Retakes House Gavel As Shutdown Continues

The Washington Post: House Democrats Vote to Defend ACA in Court — and Jam Republicans

Then on the states’ side of things, the attorneys general leading the defense of the health law have filed an appeal against the federal judge’s ruling (from December, I know it feels ages ago) that the ACA can’t stand without the individual mandate penalty. The filing was, obviously, completely expected, but it does continue to move the case down a long legal path likely to end at the Supreme Court.

The Wall Street Journal: Democratic-Led States Appeal Ruling Invalidating Affordable Care Act


Stories about excessive human waste piling up in national parks are grabbing headlines, but when it comes to the shutdown the issues go much deeper than that for Native Americans. Because of treaties, tribes receive a significant amount of the funding they need to provide basic services (like running health clinics) from the federal government. So, the shutdown cuts deeper for them than in other places in the country.

“The federal government owes us this: We prepaid with millions of acres of land. We don’t have the right to take back that land, so we expect the federal government to fulfill its treaty and trust responsibility,” said Aaron Payment, the chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, in The New York Times’ coverage.

The New York Times: Shutdown Leaves Food, Medicine and Pay in Doubt in Indian Country

P.S. If you’re confused about the shutdown and what health programs are affected, 1) you’re not alone, and 2) read KHN’s roundup, which, without bias, is the most comprehensive health-related breakdown I’ve seen. Cliff notes, though: Most big-ticket items (like Medicaid and Medicare) were already funded by Congress earlier in the year and are insulated from the standoff’s dramatics.

Kaiser Health News: How The Government Shutdown Affects Health Programs


Bristol-Myers Squibb kicked off the year with a huge $74 billion deal with Celgene. The experts at Stat break down exactly what the acquisition means for the industry. A big takeaway is that one of the sector’s largest companies will essentially cease to exist. The deal could also spark more megamergers and further consolidation of the biotech landscape — which, as you can imagine, will not be good for drug prices.

Stat: 9 Big Takeaways From the $74 Billion Bristol-Celgene Deal

Next week, movers and shakers in the biotech industry will be flocking to San Francisco for the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. It’s the place to see and be seen, but some attendees want to be anywhere but there. Why? The location.

Stat: Will San Francisco’s Issues Push People Away From J.P. Morgan?


Adding work requirements to Medicaid has proven to be the honey it takes to make expanding coverage more palatable to Republican states. But, in Arkansas — the testing ground for what exactly those rules look like in practice — thousands of residents are getting kicked off the Medicaid rolls. A picture of confusion, flawed technology and basic human error is emerging as advocates try to figure out what is going wrong.

Politico: Conservative Health Care Experiment Leads to Thousands Losing Coverage


If you managed to tune out a bit from the news over the holidays, here are some developments you should know about:

A second migrant child died in U.S. custody, prompting President Donald Trump to attempt to shift blame to the Democrats. The administration has been under ever-increasing scrutiny for the quality of care the young migrant children are receiving.

The New York Times: Trump Blames Democrats Over Deaths of Migrant Children in U.S. Custody

Hospitals were handed a major victory when a judge blocked cuts to the 340B drug program, which requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to sell drugs at discounts to hospitals serving large proportions of low-income and vulnerable people, such as children or cancer patients. The judge said the administration overstepped its authority in its push to try to lower drug prices.

Stat: Judge Blocks Trump Administration Cuts to 340B Hospital Payments

A damning investigation into the nation’s major hospital watchdog found that more than 100 psychiatric hospitals have remained fully accredited by the commission despite serious safety lapses, some of which were connected to the death, abuse or sexual assault of patients.

The Wall Street Journal: Psychiatric Hospitals With Safety Violations Still Get Accreditation


And in my miscellaneous file: 

• The old and powerful veteran advocacy groups — aka the “Big Six” — have been major players on Capitol Hill for years. But their power is diminishing as leaner, more efficient and more tailored groups chip away at the establishment and reflect the priorities of a new generation of veterans.

The New York Times: Their Influence Diminishing, Veterans Groups Compete With Each Other and Struggle With the V.A.

• The prominent Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has not been having a good fall. That’s in part due to the fabulous reporting done by The New York Times and ProPublica, which revealed conflicts of interest among the organization’s leaders. If you haven’t kept up with the story, this offers a great overview on how this ethical morass is playing out not only there but across the country as well.

The New York Times: Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Season of Turmoil

• Does medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction simply replace one drug with another? Or is it necessary to stop a relentless and sweeping epidemic that has claimed far too many victims? That’s the raging debate as experts try to get their arms around the crisis.

The New York Times: In Rehab, ‘Two Warring Factions’: Abstinence Vs. Medication

• An outbreak of cancer in children is pitting families deep in Trump Country against the president’s agenda to roll back health and environmental restrictions.

The New York Times: A Trump County Confronts the Administration Amid a Rash of Child Cancers

• Between salmonella in turkeys and E. coli in romaine lettuce, the country was beset with foodborne illness outbreaks last year. But one of the biggest recalls is one you probably haven’t even heard about.

New Food Economy: The Listeria Scare That Hit Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart Led to 100 Million Pounds of Recalled Product — And No One Noticed


Apparently, New Year’s resolutions won’t bring you joy (whether you achieve them or not), but if one of yours is to switch up your diet, check out the newly released rankings from U.S. News & World Report.

No-Go On Drunken Driving: States Deploy Breathalyzers In Cars To Limit Road Deaths

On Jan. 1, California joined the majority of states that have laws requiring drivers with drunken-driving convictions to install breathalyzers in vehicles they own or operate.

Researchers, public health advocates and political leaders believe these laws are helping reduce alcohol-related road deaths.

The gadgets, known as ignition interlock devices, are mounted on the steering wheel of a vehicle and prevent it from starting if the driver’s blood-alcohol reading is above a predetermined level.

In California, the breathalyzers are mandatory only for repeat offenders. Five other states — Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Montana and Ohio — have similar laws. Thirty-two states and D.C. require the devices even for first-time offenders.

The advent of such laws across the United States in the past 15 years has been accompanied by some good news: Deaths involving drunken driving are only about half of what they were in the early 1980s, though they have ticked back up in recent years. The long-term decline is largely attributable to greater public awareness, stricter seat belt enforcement and the establishment in 2000 of a nationwide legal blood-alcohol threshold of 0.08 percent — far below the 0.15 percent standard commonly used before then.

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), the author of the California law, said breathalyzers in cars will make roads safer than under the current law, which generally relies on license restrictions and suspensions.

“We’ve seen people on a suspended license continue to drive and continue to cause destruction,” said Hill, who lost his best friend to drunken driving in the 1980s.

There is some evidence that the breathalyzers have an impact. Nationally, from 2006 to 2016, ignition-locking breathalyzers prevented 2.3 million attempts to drive by people with a blood-alcohol level at or above 0.08 percent — the legal threshold for driving under the influence — according to a 2017 report by the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Emma McGinty, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that laws requiring interlocks for all DUI offenders were associated with a 7 percent drop in the rate of fatal crashes caused by drunken drivers. Another study found that laws covering all offenders were associated with 15 percent fewer alcohol-related fatalities compared with states that have less stringent laws.

Federal data show that in some states the number of alcohol-related deaths was lower a few years after the implementation of ignition interlock laws. But the declines could have been caused by multiple factors. In other states, crash deaths were higher. And in some, the number has bounced up and down.

New Mexico was the first state to implement an interlock law that applied to all offenders, including first-timers. The state saw a significant drop in DUI-related deaths about three years after its law took effect in 2005. The biggest dip came seven years after the law took effect, but then the number started to creep up again.

Texas, which enacted an all-offender law in 2015, has seen drunken-driving fatalities rise since then — but that meshes with the national increase recorded in 2016 and 2017. Some researchers think the strength of the economy can influence fatality statistics. “One thing that is often speculated is that as the economy gets better, people drive more,” McGinty said. “By virtue of having more people on the road, [we’re] likely to see an uptick in crashes.”

Oregon enacted its interlock law in 2008, when the state recorded 137 DUI-related fatalities. Two years later, the number of alcohol-involved crash deaths had dropped by almost half, to 70. But by 2015, it had spiked back up to 154 deaths.

The new California law builds on a pilot program in four counties — Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Tulare — which have required interlock devices in the vehicles of all DUI offenders since 2010.

The statewide law requires installation of an interlock device for one year after the second DUI offense, and for six months after a first offense if somebody is injured. After a first DUI with no injury, the driver can choose to avoid license restrictions by installing a device in his car for six months.

Installation of the breathalyzers runs from $70 to $150, and they cost another $60 to $80 a month to maintain. But the law provides for a sliding scale based on people’s income, so low-income drivers would end up paying only a small percentage of the total cost.

Advocates of interlock laws say they would rather see a statewide California law targeting all DUI offenders, not just repeat offenders. McGinty’s research shows a much smaller decline in alcohol-related fatal crash rates associated with repeat-offender laws.

But even as is, “the law will make a difference,” said Frank Harris, director of state government affairs at Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “If a person gets a DUI, the next day they can get an ignition interlock device and drive, go to work, go to their kid’s soccer games. The trade-off for society is that those folks are driving sober.”


This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.