The Pandemic Has Aggravated the Opioid Crisis – Is Biden’s Plan Enough to Combat It?

By Brady Granier, CEO of BioCorRx (OTC: BICX) Subsidiary BioCorRx Pharmaceuticals

The pandemic has undoubtedly altered the way of life for all Americans, but it has also shed light into the bleak statistics that are showing the opioid crisis is even worse than ever before. For the first time in history, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that nearly 100,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses over a 12-month period ending in March 2021, which is a little more than a 30 percent increase from the previous year.

In an effort to combat the thousands of Americans losing their lives to substance abuse, the Biden-Harris administration just announced its integrated Overdose Prevention Strategy which includes four innovative core target areas: primary prevention, harm reduction, evidence-based treatment and recovery support. But are these efforts enough? In this article we’ll explore how harm avoidance and equitable access to treatment can play a meaningful role in reducing the number of opioid-related deaths, and reduce addiction levels overall.

The Opioid Crisis Causes 11 Overdose Deaths Every Hour

According to the CDC, more than 93,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in just 2020 alone, the highest number on record ever. This number translates to an average of more than 250 deaths each day, or roughly 11 every single hour. Opioids, mainly synthetic opioids (other than methadone), are currently the main driver of drug overdose deaths, with 72.9% of opioid-involved overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids.

Fentanyl was involved in more than 60 percent of those overdose deaths last year. It is a difficult drug to contain because of its potency at small doses; as the DEA explains, a fatal dose of Fentanyl is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil, and it’s 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. The federal government estimates that one kilogram of fentanyl is equivalent to 500,000 lethal doses, making last year’s seizure equal to 2.5 billion fatal doses blocked from making their way into the country.

The Plan

The Biden-Harris administration has laid out its pathway to combating the opioid addiction crisis, which includes:

  • Holding big pharmaceutical companies, executives, and others responsible for their role in triggering the opioid crisis accountable
  • Making effective prevention, treatment, and recovery services available to all through a $125 billion federal investment
  • Stopping over-prescription while improving access to effective and needed pain management
  • Reforming the criminal justice system so that no one is incarcerated solely for drug use
  • Stemming the flow of illicit drugs, like fentanyl and heroin, into the United States – especially from China and Mexico

While the plan will hopefully help curtail the flow of illegal drugs from ever reaching the United States, I’d argue that it doesn’t do enough to address those currently in the grips of their substance use disorder who are living this crisis every day. We need this national plan to include harm reduction measures, a focus on social equity, and campaigns to end or reduce the stigma of addiction.

Additional Options for Addiction Treatment

Harm Reduction & Avoidance

There is a difference between abstinence and harm reduction, and working to eliminate the cravings for drugs altogether. While abstinence assumes that not using is an easy option for those afflicted, the chemical reality is much different. Many do not have the option to choose abstinence because of the lack of access safe and comfortable detox options while weaning themselves off the substance of dependence.

Harm reduction instead aims to control safe access and use of substances with the goal of eventual abstinence or long-term moderate use. I do believe that increasing federal funding for fentanyl test trips will help reduce overdose deaths.

What’s missing from the conversation, however, is a focus on harm avoidance with the goal of preventing drug addiction in the first place, as well as working to treat those already afflicted as to avoid future harm. Harm avoidance is vital because it helps people avoid situations and people that may trigger someone to use and cause harm, whether that be changing their environment and/or using medications that reduce or eliminate the desire to use drugs or drink alcohol. There are many non-addictive medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs that give people the tools, not only to fight the physiological addiction, but also give them the resources and training to make better choices and form new healthy habits. At the core of those programs is a very misunderstood and safe medication called naltrexone. Everyone knows naloxone which is used to reverse opioid overdoses. That drug is considered very safe and has saved many lives. Well, what many don’t understand is that naloxone and naltrexone are cousins. They are both opioid antagonists. They occupy the same receptors in the brain that opioids bind to, and they do similar things. Naloxone works faster but lasts for a shorter period of time. It’s used for overdose reversal whereby naltrexone typically is used for longer term treatment. It’s also a prime candidate to be used for harm avoidance as a preventative. This medication is old and safe and for many reasons has been villainized when it is perhaps one of the best discoveries in medicine history in my opinion. Opioids come from the poppy plant. Well, so does naltrexone. You might think of it like what CBD is to THC. They come from the same plant but work quite differently. Naltrexone should be hailed as a wonder drug which has been studied and used for many indications with documented success. It should be a household name and I think that one day it will.

Social Equity

One aspect to consider in the fight against opioid addiction is the disparity of access to safe treatment and prevention programs. Those with lower incomes often end up in more dire situations with unclean drug use habits and an inability to access therapy and medical treatment.

There are ways to level the playing field, through apps that expand access to those with limited mobility or proximity to support groups, or sustained release medications in injectable or implantable forms that help address medication compliance short falls typically seen in this patient population. Community-based training programs can also offer peer support specialists who are vital to success as they understand the challenges faced on a daily basis from their own experience with substance use disorder.

Reducing the Stigma of Addiction

It’s no secret that those suffering from substance use disorder face a massive, negative social stigma, which often leads to delays in seeking treatment or lack of access to medical attention. Compassionate care should be the number one goal, and that needs to begin everywhere, but the healthcare system should take the lead. Funding educational programs to retrain doctors, nurses, and all medical staff to better understand the disease process of substance use disorder will go a long way to reduce discrimination towards those that have commonly been referred to as “drug seekers.”

Contingency management (positive reinforcement) is another way to create meaningful change, and states like California are seeing success with payment programs designed to help people get clean and stay clean. They idea is that one receives an endorphin boost from positive reinforcement and this may help balance out the chemical cravings they face. This will be a growing practice in the field and I see it working really well with antagonist therapy like naltrexone.

Building Upon The Biden-Harris Plan

There are additional options for addiction treatment, and the government would benefit from paying more attention and driving funding toward alternative technologies and medical studies. Removing monetary barriers and authorization issues would also allow those who need help now to go to an ER or treatment center and ask for it without red tape. We can’t fix this issue in a silo, and it requires cooperation from hospital administrators, doctors, nurses, insurance companies, and the federal government.

We must also remember the family members of those who have lost a loved one to addiction or those that are living the nightmare in real time. They need more access to programs that provide therapy and support and they are almost always left feeling helpless and alone. I once met a mother and her son who was using heroin. We were all sitting at a table and she was trying to get him to commit to getting help. I will never forget what she said to me. She said, “imagine your child has treatable cancer, but refuses to get treatment.” It’s a hopelessness that’s hard to imagine. This is a disease process like no other and there is no one size fits all solution, but we need to change the system. There are ways, but it requires a wake up and a shakeup. We will continue to do what we can but we need to create a new movement.

Brady Granier Biography:

Brady Granier

Brady Granier, CEO & Director of BioCorRx Pharmaceuticals has led a team in the creation of a unique implantable naltrexone pellet for the treatment of Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) called BICX104 that may revolutionize the future of addiction treatment. They just received IND clearance from the FDA to move forward into human trials for this treatment and also just received additional grant funding from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institute of Health (NIH), for nearly $3.5 million. Before joining BioCorRx, Granier was a nurse who specialized in critical care areas such as ER/ICU/CCU and CICU. He also moonlighted as a home health nurse, critical care air transport nurse, and TV studio set medic.