By July 2018 Canada will have legalized marijuana. Will this result in northern reefer madness? I think not. I do hope the discussion shifts to more pressing issues than that of marijuana. However the next topic – that of medicalizing drugs of abuse – is likely to be even more polarizing for the psychiatric community.
The opiate crisis needs to be addressed. A New York Times article reports there were an estimated 59,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016 in the U.S. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.
At least half of ACT clients will struggle with co-occurring substance use problems at some point. This, in combination with psychotic illnesses, poverty and the multiple other challenges ACT clients face, may make them even more at risk than the general population. (I haven’t found any publications on how the opiate crisis is affecting ACT clients. If you know of any please let me know.)
I blogged about this issue previously – if you have time read Relativity Risk (click to view). Note where cannabis falls on the graphs!
Dr. Nutt, an expert in the field wrote how:
“We saw no clear distinction between socially acceptable and illicit substances. The fact that the two most widely used legal drugs lie in the upper half of the ranking of harm is surely important information that should be taken into account in public debate on illegal drug use. Discussions based on a formal assessment of harm rather than on prejudice and assumptions might help society to engage in a more rational debate about the relative risks and harms of drugs.”
Some European countries have moved to medicalizing drugs of abuse. In a 2014 legal journal article titled Uses and Abuses of Drug Decriminalization in Portugal (click to view pdf) the author says that “The dire predictions of critics—“from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for ‘drug tourists’ ”—did not come to pass.” She points out that “Portugal’s 2001 decriminalization law did not legalize drugs as is often loosely suggested. The law did not alter the criminal penalty prohibiting the production, distribution, and sale of drugs, nor did it permit and regulate use. Rather, Portugal decriminalized drug use…”
So what has been the effect? While still debated, the author concludes that “The removal of criminal penalties for drug use was intended to de-stigmatize addicted users and encourage treatment. According to Portuguese drug policy officials, the new system has effectively done just that.”
The fentanyl-related deaths that have hit communities such as Vancouver – but also smaller centers, including my home of Winnipeg – have prompted the Canadian government to take steps, even ordering prescription-grade heroin.
I know some will shudder at the thought of physicians ‘prescribing’ heroin. I do! However the issue isn’t whether we, as physicians and mental health professionals, ‘support’ drug abuse. I think using drugs is BAD! However the choice is not between good and bad options – it’s between bad and worse. Nearly 60,000 Americans and 2,500 Canadians died of opiates in 2016!
ACT clinicians, like other front-line staff may be equipped with naloxone kits, but naloxone is a fleeting intervention for what is almost always a long-term problem. ACT clinicians should always be listening for opportunities to help clients work towards abstinence but the reality of the work is going to remain focused on harm-reduction. There are not enough treatment options out there to begin with. For ACT clients who, for multiple reasons, can’t tap into or benefit from conventional treatment settings, there are even fewer.
BTW if your team doesn’t have a copy of Muesser et al’s Integrated Treatment of Dual Disorders, buy one now! (click to view my previous post on this)
I don’t presume to have the answers but I do think we need to have discussions.
Thank you for listening.