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Opioid Crisis Causes US Drug Czar To Come Up With New Ideas

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor
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As the opioid crisis continues to worsen, the federal drug czar is trying to come up with new ways to combat the epidemic.

Michael Botticelli, who currently serves as the director of the White House Office Of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), has proposed innovative and unusual initiatives in response to the epidemic, including clean syringe distribution projects.

He also has an unusual personal history relative to most federal officials. Botticelli is a former alcoholic who announced at an event at the National Press Club that he’s been sober for 27 years. The official also experimented with cocaine and marijuana in his 20s and was arrested for driving under the influence after an accident on the Massachusetts Turnpike, according to The New York Times. He is the first director of the ONDCP who is known to be in recovery for substance abuse.

One of his proposals for fighting the heroin addiction outbreak is increased education for healthcare providers across the country. At an event at the National Press Club called “Covering the Opioid Crisis,” Botticelli said that doctors should not be receiving direct incentives for prescribing drugs from pharmaceutical companies.

Dr. Ashley Wazana published an extensive report for The Journal of the American Medical Association detailing how much sway pharmaceutical companies hold over physicians’ actions.

Wazana found that when doctors received free samples, they were “significantly” more likely to prescribe that drug and to place it on a formulary, which is a hospital’s formal list of allowable drugs.

Physicians were also more likely to place a certain drug on a formulary if they were provided with an all-expenses-paid trip to a conference or given a free meal. While such gatherings allow doctors to learn more about the drug’s compositional nuances and effects, it also could improperly influence the physician’s decision-making processes (whether subconsciously or consciously) for prescribing opioids.

Botticelli also suggested at the event that naloxone, a medication that counters the effects of opioids, should be more widely available. Naloxone, often sold under the brandname Narcan, can be injected through a needle or sprayed through the nose in the event of an overdose. Botticelli also said that police officers should be trained to properly administer naloxone to save people from fatal overdoses.

Botticelli also proposed a more controversial measure: empowering states and cities with the resources to increase the availability of clean syringes. There are a number of syringe exchange programs across the country, including one in Baltimore, a city that some consider the U.S. heroin capital. This initiative allows people to hand in their used syringes for new sanitized syringes. Studies show that these programs decrease the chance of contracting severe illnesses like HIV and Hepatitis C, which often spread from drug users sharing needles.

Programs like Prevention Point Philadelphia, however, do not have a limit. In addition, a black market has transpired in which people are collecting clean needles and making a profit off of it, according to an NPR report,

“You can exchange pretty much one old needle off the ground for a new set right there. Some people come in with 300, 400 works at a time,” an unknown man told NPR. The man gets $1 for every needle he receives from the exchange by selling the needle alongside the drugs. The anonymous drug dealer said he is not the only one undertaking this sort of illicit enterprise.

Botticelli’s proposals are a reflection of his unusual substance abuse history. As the opioid crisis continues to worsen, Botticelli feels that the public should treat addiction as a disease. He believes it is inhumane to treat substance abusers as criminals.

After the DUI and traffic collision, a judge gave Botticelli a choice for sentencing: entering treatment or entering a jail cell. Botticelli chose treatment and wants the same option — along with other sympathetic measures — to be offered to others as well.

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