Forty-nine states have adopted drug monitoring programs to help address America's prescription drug abuse scourge—but not Missouri. US Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, who calls the programs "useful," is in the state today to speak with pharmacists, medical professionals, community members and lawmakers. "Our goal is not to tell people what they should or shouldn't do," Kerlikowske tells The Fix, "but we have provided a lot of information about the number of overdose deaths, and the costs in health care for treating Rx drug abuse. We wanted to put that information out there, and also to let people know that there are federal grants that pay for the start-up costs." Kerlikowske is joined today by Republican Senator Kevin Engler, who unsuccessfully pushed for a state monitoring program earlier this year; that bill was filibustered by Republican Senator Rob Schaaf, a family physician, who claims that databases infringe upon patients' privacy. "All they have to do is punch in your name and address and they can find out every controlled substance you've been prescribed," Schaaf said this week.
The Drug Czar has understandably called prescription pill abuse an "epidemic." It was responsible for nearly 21,000 deaths in 2009—more than the number of cocaine and heroin deaths combined. Most states have rolled out monitoring programs that use electronic databases to identify if a patient is "doctor shopping"—visiting different doctors to obtain multiple prescriptions. The programs can also help identify "pill mills," offices that overprescribe meds and allow addicted patients to feed their habits. Feedback on these programs has been positive: "Physicians that use these programs say they are very helpful in determining which patients may be doctor shopping, and then the goal is to help get those patients into treatment if they need help," says Kerlikowske. "We don't see prescription monitoring as a silver bullet, but it's one more tool to be used in [combatting drug abuse] and it can be very effective. Doctors have called it a patients' safety tool."
In a world where anyone can sign up for free Gmail accounts with 10 gigabytes of storage space, it seems strange that the DEA would abandon a major prescription drug-dealing case just because it doesn’t have the hard-drive space to maintain the vast amounts of evidence associated with it. But that’s just what happened last week in Iowa, when a federal judge dropped charges against Armando Angulo, a former doctor in Miami who was indicted in 2007 for selling millions of dollars’ worth of prescription drugs to patients he never even met. Angulo was then employed by Pharmacom International Corp., a Florida-based web company whose doctors signed off on prescriptions with virtually no information from the supposed patients who requested them. After Angulo found out he was under investigation, in 2004, the doctor hightailed it to his native Panama, which doesn't extradite its own citizens to the US. So the huge quantity of evidence accumulated in the investigation—over 440,000 documents and two terabytes of data—has been gathering actual and virtual dust on the DEA’s shelves and servers, with little hope of ever being used in a trial.
A terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes, so the data in the case added up to about 200 maxed-out Gmail accounts. That might not sound like all that much, given that, according to Google co-founder Larry Page, there are more than 350 million 10-gigabyte Gmail accounts in the world (that's nearly 342,000 terabytes). But, according to the AP, two terabytes apparently sucked up an incredible 5% of the DEA’s worldwide electronic storage capacity. And that’s why federal prosecutors asked for the case against Angulo to be dismissed—to free up space for other cases. Still, even though this case against him has been tossed out (with prejudice, so it can’t be reopened), Angulo won’t be cruising the South Beach strip again anytime soon: he remains wanted for other, still-active Medicaid fraud and narcotics charges in Florida.
Is Brooklyn's Stepford-esque suburban enclave hiding a secret substance-abuse problem behind the walls of its idyllic brownstones? Motherland, a new book by Park Slope mother Amy Sohn, claims moms in the neighborhood routinely abuse anti-depressants and afternoon cocktails in order to cope with their secretly unhappy lives. "The woman who starts drinking at three or four, people aren't necessarily going to know about that," says Sohn, who wrote the book as fiction based on research from her own life. "And a lot of them are also on antidepressants—I think women turn to antidepressants in larger numbers than men do. They're steered to Zoloft after they have children." Sohn claims these women keep their unhealthy lifestyles closeted from other moms—Stepford Wives-style—for the sake of not ruining the "perfect family" image that's so assiduously cultivated in Park Slope. Motherland is a follow-up to Sohn's 2009 bestseller Prospect Park West, another fiction-based-on-truth novel that offered an inside look into families in the area. "One of the things that's weird about this neighborhood is there's very little interpersonal confession between mothers," she says. "I don't hear people admitting to their problems very often. They'll make comments like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to kill my husband' and they'll say it lightly, but you can tell by the tone of their voice, the look, that they're pissed."
The heat is on Scientology’s Narconon rehabs, as NBC’s Rock Center investigates tomorrow the deaths of three patients at its Oklahoma facility, which The Fix covered recently. The sauna-and-vitamins program, based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s “purification rundown,” hasn't been proven as an effective treatment for addiction. Yet this doesn't prevent it and other faith-based facilities from advertising and operating—and even getting accredited and listed on government treatment directories. Narconon’s leadership refused to be interviewed by NBC on camera, but issued a statement saying, “Three out of four Narconon graduates are able to live stable, drug-free lives.”
Citing success rates only for graduates is a classic technique used by rehabs of many stripes to inflate their outcome measures. Most people who start rehab don’t complete it; those who do tend to be the most highly motivated. Genuine evaluations of treatment include dropouts—and never achieve 75% lifelong abstinence rates. Of course, this particular statement is even more vague: 100% of Narconon graduates are likely “able” to live drug-free lives so long as they survive the treatment. That doesn’t mean they actually do. The program airs at 10 pm Eastern, and includes interviews with the families of those who lost their lives.
A decision announced today by Australia's highest court—despite tobacco companies' protests—could have a knock-on effect for other countries, including the US. It upholds a new law will require all logos and brand colors to be removed from cigarette packaging—which will have to be plain olive green in color and will feature graphic anti-smoking warnings. Major tobacco manufacturers like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco tried but failed to derail the law, which was passed by the government last year and is set to take effect on December 1. The government believes the plain packaging will reduce the number of smokers in Australia, boosting public health. But tobacco manufacturers say the law is unconstitutional and violates their intellectual property rights. "It's still a bad law that will only benefit organized crime groups which sell illegal tobacco on our streets," says Scott McIntyre, a spokesman for British American Tobacco (BAT) Australia. And of course they fear a drastic reduction in profits—not only in the relatively small Australian market, but in larger markets that may follow. Several other countries including India, New Zealand and the UK, as well as some US states, have been looking to follow in Australia's groundbreaking footsteps. However, the American Legislative Exchange Council launched a worldwide campaign against plain cigarette packaging last month.
If artist Bryan Lewis Saunders is known for anything, it's making people uncomfortable. He calls his spoken word performances "stand-up tragedy," because the goal is to make the audience cry. But Saunders also draws self-portraits—and these are sure to inspire as much discomfort as anything else he's done. Because when he draws himself he gets high. Last year he put together a collection of 45 self-portraits, each one drawn while on a different drug, and they've gone viral this week after being posted on The Chive. In an interview last year with Dinosaurcity, Saunders said he was inspired to do the project by the residents of a run-down Tennessee building where he was living. For good measure, he provided some reviews of the drugs he used as muses. Xanax came out well: "It made me feel real at peace with life and with the trauma, and it also made me a real social dynamo!" On the other end of the spectrum was PCP: "Any drugs that detach your mind from your body I don't care for too much," he said. As far as which drug most enhanced his artistic abilities, that'll be left to you. But psilocybin mushrooms are definitely the frontrunner.