Thursday, March 21, 2019

Kirsten Gillibrand Swings And Misses On Opioids

[TRIGGER WARNING: ADDICTION, SUICIDE]

Kirsten Gillibrand might be the candidate who I am most positive about, being decently far left without a lot of shit weighing her down, and having swung left long before looking to run for president. However, a recent tweet about the opioid epidemic was a big miss for me and for the many chronic pain patients in the U.S.


I've talked about the clusterfuck that is the opioid epidemic, and the government response to the opioid epidemic, before. I accidentally got onto the path of being a substance use and addiction writer because of my background in psychology. I also happen to know a few people coping with chronic illness and/or pain. So I'm pretty familiar with the story.

In short, pharmaceutical companies created take-home prescription opioids that were milder and safer than straight up morphine. They knew these meds were still addictive and dangerous at high doses, but they aggressively downplayed these dangers and marketed them hard toward doctors, giving them perks for agreeing to prescribe more OxyContin or whatever the drug of the day was. Doctors started giving out opioids like candy, prescribing them for uncomplicated wisdom teeth extraction without even asking patients if they wanted them (this is my exact experience), and then people started to notice rising rates in addiction and overdose to these pills.

There was some anti-drug hysteria and doctors started cutting back on the opioid prescriptions hard. However, this only created a black market for pills people were already addicted to. Once cops started cracking down on the black market and it was too hard to get the relatively safe pills, addicted people turned to heroin. Then in 2013, fentanyl arrived on the scene and started killing people en masse, the government ignored the problem for too long until the data about the huge spikes in overdose deaths came out, and everyone freaked out.

Instead of focusing on the issue of illicit fentanyl and treating people who were already addicted, people went hard after the prescription pills. Laws were passed, doctors got scared, and now in Washington State there are already widespread policies allowing for only three-day supplies of opioids stronger than codeine in most cases. My boyfriend slips on ice outside our apartment, thinks he may have cracked a rib, and we have to go to the emergency room just to get him any pain relief at all, and is in pain for over a month after his three days of Vicodin runs out and ends up crying at work because he can't afford to miss any more days but is in horrible pain.

Meanwhile, opioid hysteria causes doctors to start forcing chronic pain patients off of the pain meds they've been taking for years already when there is no effective replacement. These individuals literally start killing themselves because they can't face a lifetime of horrific pain at every waking moment.

Then Kirsten Gillibrand tweets this shit.

Okay, I am incapable of making stories short. But all those details are important. A real short version would be capitalism creates problem, government fails to respond to problem for years, problem starts killing a shit ton of people, government responds too late and also in the wrong way, people start killing themselves. Whee!

There have been many negative responses to Gillibrand's tweet, and hopefully she'll hear them. There are multiple problems with her statement, including the fact that being prescribed a potentially addictive substance is NOT the "root cause" of addiction. I believe it's human misery mixing with the physical aspects of addiction, but it's definitely more complex than taking Vicodin for more than a week. Also, as many pointed out, "acute" pain is any pain that lasts for less than six months. Let's see Gillibrand endure five months and three weeks of acute pain and then she can have an opinion on opioid prescriptions.

Yes, my dental surgeon should not have given me a bottle of Vicodin for my routine and easy two wisdom tooth extraction when I was 17. I didn't use them and my brother almost certainly stole them out of my cabinet and took them for funsies. Big Pharma is largely responsible for many people's opioid addictions and should have their asses handed to them. But that doesn't mean opioids should be rationed like they're the last bit of food on the lifeboat. Until a real alternative is developed, chronic pain patients need opioids to live. People with no history of addiction who are in serious pain should be allowed to have more than a week's worth of opioids with the proper warnings and monitoring. And, as always, capitalism should be abolished.

I am hoping that this tweet and the response will bring some attention to the issue of chronic pain patients being forced off of their meds. These people are crying out for help and have been largely ignored so far. We need to realize that ignorant, knee-jerk responses to problems almost always hurt more than they help. America and possibly all of humanity has never managed to learn this lesson so far, but let's keep trying. Because holy fuck, people are killing themselves. Please stop, Kirsten.

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