Doctors Criticize Massachusetts Governor at International Opioid Conference in Boston

By Zachary Siegel 06/17/15

The governor blames doctors who liberally prescribe opioids. Unsurprisingly, doctors seem to disagree.

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Since the Angel Program in Gloucester, Mass., was implemented on June 1, 17 people as of today have received detox and treatment offered by the police department. It’s a sign that the advent of offering treatment instead of handcuffs to those who are addicted is working.

"I think the fact the police chief up in Gloucester is trying something different is a good thing and I'll be interested to see how it works," Gov. Charlie Baker said at an international opioid conference hosted in Boston.

At the conference, Gov. Baker gave a speech and mentioned how his son was prescribed opioids after breaking his leg. "Because of the avalanche of stories I had heard over the course of the campaign, I said, 'Look, you really ought not spend a heck of lot of time with these things, frankly, they're dangerous. They're effective, but they're dangerous.'"

Gov. Baker also made the connection between widely available prescription painkillers as being one of the many factors contributing to the current heroin epidemic. “I have no doubt in my mind that it's the prescription drugs in many cases and the relatively easy availability of them, which is why doing a better job of educating practitioners has to be part of the solution going forward," Baker said.

His assertion was criticized by a few doctors in attendance. 

"In my experience, these folks who come to get these prescriptions often times already are addicted to street drugs or they bought these prescriptions, OxyContin for example, on the street," Dr. Carol Warfield, of Beth Israel Deaconess said. "They then come to physicians' offices or pain clinics faking their pain."

It’s the classic causality dilemma as to which came first, the chicken or the egg? In a recently published book, Dream Land: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, former Los Angeles Times journalist Sam Quinones uncovered that in most cases, the pills, prescribed legally or not, indeed came first.

Recent surveys also demonstrate that nearly half of young people who inject heroin reported abusing prescription opioids before turning to the needle. And in towns where doctors liberally prescribe opiate medications, the turn to heroin and subsequent heroin-related mortality sky rockets, reports show.

Perhaps Gov. Baker is correct on his position that doctors need to better screen patients for addictive tendencies and only resort to opioid medication if absolutely necessary.

As for the Angel Program, Gov. Baker said he is not mandating that other towns and cities follow suit. But it seems the idea of getting people proper treatment instead of jail and prison is becoming more widely accepted.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.