01/11/15 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

Doug McVay: New CDC data on alcohol overdose death rates, plus we look at the new chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley.

Audio file



JANUARY 11 2015

DOUG MCVAY: Hello and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of Drug War Facts dot org. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network, which comes to you through the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network and is supported by the generosity of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and of listeners like you.

Find us on the web at drug truth dot net, where you can find past programs and you can subscribe to our podcasts. You can follow me on twitter, where I'm at drug policy facts, and also at doug mcvay. The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, be sure to give its page a Like, you can find Drug War Facts on facebook as well, please give it a like and share it with friends.

Now, on with the show.

First this news: The CDC has released a new report on alcohol poisoning, or overdose, deaths. According to the CDC, every day on average six people die from alcohol poisoning in the United States. During the period 2010 through 2012, an annual average of 2,221 alcohol poisoning deaths occurred among persons aged 15 years or older in the United States. That's a rate of 8.8 deaths per 1 million population.

An average of 75.7 percent of those deaths involved adults aged 35–64 years of age, 76.4 percent of them involved men, and non-Hispanic whites accounted for 67.5 percent. The highest age-adjusted death rate was among American Indians/Alaska Natives, with a rate of 49.1 per 1 million. Alcohol poisoning death rates vary substantially by state. The age-adjusted rate of alcohol poisoning deaths in states ranged from 5.3 per 1 million in Alabama to 46.5 per 1 million in Alaska.

The full report can be downloaded from C D C dot gov. Links to that report as well as data from it can also be found on my website at Drug War Facts dot org.

That leads us to our next story. The National Institute on Drug Abuse sponsors an annual National Drug Facts Week. This year it's being held from January 26th through February 1st. It's an event directed toward young people, as NIDA puts it, quote: “National Drug Facts Week (NDFW) is a national health observance for teens to promote local events that use NIDA science to shatter the myths about drugs.” End quote.

To find out more about national drug facts week, go online and point your browser toward teens dot drugabuse dot gov. And to find some actual drug facts – direct quotes, full citations, and links to the original sources – go to my website at drug war facts dot org. And keep listening to the Drug Truth Network. This program, Century of Lies, and our sister show, Cultural Baggage, come to you once a week with news, information, and commentary on drug policies and the war on drugs.

Are you part of a community, college, or public radio station? Looking for content? These programs are also available for rebroadcast without fees. We also produce a daily three-minute news item, that's seven short pieces of quality audio every week, all of which are available. Check us out at the website drug truth dot net.

Now, let's turn to the new Congress. In the last election we saw a change in the Senate. Control has passed from the Democrats to the Republicans. That means that committees now have new leadership. The question is, what will this mean for drug policy reform?

Really, the answer is that it's too soon to tell. The informal drug policy caucus that's been developing is bipartisan though it does lean Democrat. Plus the House was already Republican-led. On the other hand, we're now officially in the run-up to a presidential election, so campaign politics are likely to influence policy and legislation. We will see. I don't do idle speculation, I'll say that it's a waste of time though really I just don't like being wrong. No, I don't predict the future. What I do is research and try to find out everything I can about the present situation. All of which brings us to this next segment.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has oversight and confirmation responsibilities over the Justice Department. That makes sense, no one would argue with that. Judiciary also has oversight and confirmation responsibilities over the Office of National Drug Control Policy. That's something which has bothered me ever since the office was created. Judiciary's oversight guarantees that the feds will consider drugs to be first and foremost a criminal justice concern.

Control over the committee means control of the schedule, control of witness lists, control of the nomination process. That's real power. For the next two years, that power will rest in the hands of Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa. He is an unreconstructed prohibitionist, a drug warrior of the old school. He's not only opposed to drug policy reform, he's opposed to even discussing drug policy reforms. Back in 2009, US Senator James Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, introduced legislation to create a national criminal justice commission. The commission was to make recommendations for reforming the US criminal justice system. Senator Grassley introduced an amendment to prevent the commission from exploring any drug policy reforms, not even decriminalization.

Senator Grassley is the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as the co-chair of the Senate Narcotics Caucus. He will have that power for the next two years. So today, to get more of an idea about the man, we're going to hear Senator Grassley in action. The Narcotics Caucus held a hearing back in May of 2014 on heroin and prescription drug use. We're going to hear portions of that now. The first speaker will be Narcotics Caucus co-chair Senator Diane Feinstein, a Democrat from California.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Our hearing will come to order. I'd like to welcome our distinguished witnesses, and they will be introduced shortly. Recently, uh, the media has chronicled a resurgence of heroin abuse in the United States, and actually more heroin being moved into the country. According to a 2012 national survey, 666,000 Americans reported using heroin during the previous year. That number has steadily grown over the past several years.

So this begs the question, why are more people using heroin? And this is the Senate Caucus on International Drug Control, but the reason to control it is to keep it out of our country and to do those things which prevent opiate use, not to enable it. But one answer according to the experts may be the country's addiction and use of prescription pain medications. And here's why: A report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicates that individuals who use prescription pain relievers for non-medical purposes were 19 times more likely to use heroin in the past year than those who had not, that's an amazing thing to me.

Furthermore, four out of every five heroin abusers had abused prescription pain relievers in the past. So pain relievers like oxycodone and hydrocodone affect the central nervous system in much the same way as heroin, so the lesson here is that rather than thinking of two separate addictions – prescription pain medications and heroin – we're should realize that we're facing a much larger opiate addiction epidemic that includes both. So the strategy to ba – to battle these drugs should have three parts: Preventing drug abuse, treating addicts, and reducing the number of overdoses.

But the first and most important strategy is to prevent drug abuse before it starts. And this means educating communities and youth about the dangers. Now some committ – some communities already do this through the federal drug free communities program. In California there's a program called PLACER Youth, and that program has contributed to a 50 percent reduction in prescription drug use among 11th graders between 2011 and 2013.

So these programs I believe can work. It also means though recognizing that all stakeholders share a responsibility, that prescription opioids are prescribed and dispensed only, only, for legitimate medical purposes. State-based prescription drug monitoring programs along with mandatory checks of electronic databases, can help doctors and pharmacists identify drug abusers. Since requiring mandatory checks, New York has seen a 75 percent decrease in doctor shopping and significant reductions in pain reliever prescriptions.

So drug take-back programs can also help reduce opioid abuse, because they get unused prescription pain medicines out of families' medicine cabinets, where too many young adults first obtain these drugs. So – and heroin, entering the United States from other countries, must be addressed. The DEA's heroin signature program in 2012 determined that 90 percent of wholesale heroin seizures were able to be traced from Mexico or South America. DEA also reports that the Mexican-based Sinaloa drug cartel is expanding its market eastward and producing and selling heroin that is more pure, in other words going from the brown to the white heroin.

Between 2008 and 2013, heroin seizures along with southwest border increased nearly fourfold, from 559 kilograms to 2,196. The second key strategy in this fight, um, is successful treatment, which often includes medication-assisted therapies using drugs like methadone and, I'm going to have trouble with this one, buprenorphine, buprenorphine, thank you sirs. Unfortunately in 2012, two and a half million people in our country were addicted to these opioids while only 351,000 received these methadones or buprenorphine to treat their addiction.

So that means that the rest are not receiving treatment. Finally, the third strategy is to address overdose deaths. In 2010, the latest for which data is available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 19,500 unintentional opioid overdose deaths. Now there's steps that can be taken, there are drugs that immediately reverse these overdoses, and 18 states including California have taken actions to improve access to these drugs. So, I think we need to find a way to make these drugs more readily available to properly trained administer, uh, individuals including first responders.

So I think we have an interesting hearing. I do want to point out, if you look over at those charts, you see the rate of opioid sales, overdose deaths, and treatment between 1999 and 2010, and in this – I've lost the copy, here's the chart – the green is treatment admissions, the red are deaths, and the blue are sales, and as you can see they're all going up in this country. So, I think that's a good chart that really discusses what we're about.

The other quick point is that heroin abuse increases as access to prescription painkillers decrease. Now that's a brand new thing for me and that's what this other chart shows. So I would hope that some of you in your testimony would remark on this. And now I'd like to recognize the distinguished vice chairman.

CHARLES GRASSLEY: I'd like to defer to Senator McConnell and thank him for his interest in this issue, and then, uh –

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: And I thank you as well sir.

MITCH MCCONNELL: Well thank you Senator Feinstein, Senator Grassley, for the opportunity to be here today to testify on the scourge of heroin abuse that is devastating, as Senator Feinstein indicated, too many families and communities across America and in particular, in particular in my home state of Kentucky. Thank you for your willingness to focus on this growing threat.

I'd like to share with you the story of a wonderful vibrant community that I have the pleasure of representing, here in the US Senate. It could be many places in America, but it happens to be in northern Kentucky. The northern Kentucky area of suburban Cincinnati is a center of culture, arts, and American history. It's the home to the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport and the gateway to the bluegrass state from the north.

Residents of the three counties up there, Kenton, Boone, and Campbell, the area we refer to as northern Kentucky, live in a time of great opportunity. They have the benefit of living in a major metropolitan area of more than two million people, with all the livability and charm of a small town. They can take advantage of the cultural amenities like the Cincinnati Zoo and botanical gardens, Newport on the levy, Newport aquarium and Kentucky Speedway to name a few, or they can take in a Cincinnati Reds game or Cincinnati Bengals NFL game, or the Cincinnati art museum, and over 25,000 acres of parkland give free rein to relaxation and recreation on a temperate day.

Northern Kentucky offers all of that, and yet this proud community is also saddled with the terrible distinction of being the very epicenter, the very epicenter of heroin addiction in Kentucky and in the nation. Many believe that the problem started because of prescription pain pill abuse, as Senator Feinstein was pointing out. Kentucky has the third highest drug overdose mortality rate in our country.

On the street these pain pills are expensive. They can cost between 60 and 100 dollars, compared to a bag of heroin at just 10 dollars a bag. So given the progress we've made in Kentucky in fighting the illegal sale and use of prescription narcotics, it's no surprise that we've seen an uptick, as Senator Feinstein was just pointing out, in heroin usage once we understand the economics of it.

A few months ago I discussed the relationship between prescription painkiller abuse and growing heroin threat with leaders of federal agencies responsible for curbing these drugs, and I'm going to continue to work with them as we all work together to fight this epidemic.

I want to highlight for the drug caucus some hard but true facts about the extent of heroin abuse in northern Kentucky, and I'd like to credit the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce for the data. The fact that these numbers come from a chamber of commerce and not law enforcement or public health agency demonstrates how pervasive, how pervasive the threat to the community is.

These are the facts. In 2012, there were 61 heroin overdose deaths in the three counties referred to as northern Kentucky. In fact the number of overdose cases at the region's largest hospital increased by more than 75 percent. Seventy five percent in 2012, while the number of heroin overdose cases by just August of 2013 had already doubled the number in all of 2012. Rates of acute hepatitis C infections in northern Kentucky are double, double, the statewide rate, and 24 times the national rate. Twenty four times the national rate.

Public health officials attribute the region's high infection rate to the region's high level of heroin use. What's more, the northern Kentucky health department has reported that for every one death there's one new case of hepatitis C that incurs a lifetime cost of $64,500. The smallest among us are not spared from the scourge. Sadly, newborn babies are born with drug withdrawal syndrome, each case is heartbreaking and is not only costly in human terms, but fiscally as well, incurring an average hospital cost of $14,257.

Law enforcement is on the front lines of this battle to protect Kentucky families. According to the northern Kentucky drug strike force, the number of court cases for heroin possession and trafficking has increased by 500 percent from 2008 to 2012 in the three counties that I mentioned and is expected to double again in 2013. To put this in perspective, the three counties of northern Kentucky contain 60 percent of my state's heroin prosecutions in 2011, even though they are home to less than ten percent of the state's population.

Let me add here that it's fitting you are holding this hearing during National Police Week, when thousands of police officers from across the country visit the nation's capitol. We owe these officers our profound thanks and gratitude for risking their lives to combat the drug problem, and the many ancillary violent and property crimes driven by the growing trend.

Clearly the troubling facts that I've just related show northern Kentucky has a serious, serious heroin abuse problem. It's a major problem not for a few but for the entire region. And while northern Kentucky may be ground zero in my state, the problem of heroin abuse is spreading like a cancer across the bluegrass state, where we're losing close to a hundred fellow Kentuckians a month, a month, to drug-related deaths. We only have four million people in the whole state. This is more lives lost than to fatal car crashes.

This March, I held a 90 minute listening session in that area of our state to hear from those closest to the problem how federal resources could best be devoted to fixing it. As I said, in Boone County, one of the three counties I referred to, there are great heroes in this tragic story, such as the medical professionals who save lives, the business leaders who raise money for prevention and awareness efforts, the prosecutors and dedicated investigators who take drugs off the streets, and the recovered addicts themselves who find the courage to live despite their addiction.

I heard from informed Kentuckians in the medical, public health, and law enforcement fields and the business community, and in particular I want to point out one brave young man, Patrick Kenyon, who had been ensnared by heroin and saw his friends use it and overdose. It took repeated attempts for him to break his addiction, but he said proudly in the listening session, he was four years and ten months clean. I can't stress enough how helpful it was to hear about this issue from so many thoughtful perspectives, and that's why I'm pleased you're holding this hearing today.

Let me just report briefly three takeaways from the listening session I held several months ago. First as noted, it's clear that the increase in heroin addiction is tied to our fight against prescription drug abuse, which is largely driven by the abuse of prescription painkillers. Second, while Kentucky's making progress with greater education and more aggressive prosecutions and enhanced regulatory authority at the state level, we need a combination of both treatment and incarceration to be part of the solution.

Lastly, the heroin trade is no respecter of borders, which is why multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency law enforcement efforts, such as in my state the Appalachian High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area or HIDTA, are so crucial. In this area of finite federal resources we must use these inter-agency partnerships to the best extent to maximize our return from federal dollars we spend to combat the epidemic.

My friend Frank Rapier, the director of Appalachian HIDTA, never fails to remind his law enforcement partners that there is no limit to what we can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit. The very same credo must also guide our efforts at the federal level.

So Senator Feinstein, Senator Grassley, let me return to the picture I painted of a northern Kentucky ripe with promise yet beset, beset by heroin abuse. Thankfully the ending to the story has yet to be written. That's why I'm here today, to share with you the gravity of the heroin threat to my constituents and to pledge work with all the stakeholders to save lives in Kentucky from this terrible growing threat.

With the efficient leveraging of federal resources and authorities, using best practices learned from both the law enforcement and corrections agencies as well as the medical and public health communities, we can and will eliminate the shadow of this terrible heroin epidemic from the healthy and robust communities all across America, like northern Kentucky. Thank you very much.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Thank you very much, Senator McConnell. Senator Grassley, you haven't made your statement, and then Senator Klobuchar would also like to make an opening statement.

CHARLES GRASSLEY: I think since you described, uh, the situation very well I'm going to start out at the middle of my statement, and refer to something that you and I learned about, the existence of a database by doctors maintained by Peru, uh, Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Purdue markets oxycotine, uh, OxyContin, one of the most abused prescription opiates. The database allegedly contained information about doctors who engaged in reckless prescribing practices. Your and my investigation revealed that many state medical boards, as well as the Center for Medicaid Services, didn't know about this database. We encouraged these organizations as well as DEA to contact Purdue, Purdue about it.

As a result, the information is now in the hands of authorities who can take action against irresponsible doctors. The purpose of this hearing is to learn more about what else is being done to combat this epidemic, and what role Congress can make. A multi-faceted approach make common sense. Prevention effort through which doctors and the public are educated about the dangerousness of opioids and other addictive drugs should be a part of that solution.

This is why the mixed signals the Obama administration sends to young people about marijuana use are all so damaging. Young people and all those looking to climb up the ladder of opportunity in America don't need another pathway to addiction, but that is what I think that, uh, the president said provides by failing to enforce federal laws and dismiss marijuana use as just another bad habit. Treatment for those who are become addicted is also part of the solution as well.

A drug called, uh, naloxone, uh, has shown effectiveness in countering the effects of heroin overdoses, and finally law enforcement will have a critical role to play. Of course we can't arrest our way out of this crisis but we can and must maintain the current law enforcement tools to go after those who are trafficking heroin into our nation and our communities.

Unfortunately, sentencing reform bills that uh, the, are now before Congress does just the opposite. The proposed Smarter Sentencing Act that recently passed out of Judiciary cuts the mandatory minimum sentences for those who manufacture, import and distribute heroin and do that by cutting them in half. These are penalties for dealers, not for users. In the midst of an epidemic, my opinion, this makes no sense. Federal prosecutors themselves wrote that the current system of penalties is the cornerstone of their ability to quote infiltrate and dismantle large-scale drug trafficking organizations and to make violent armed career criminals, to get them off the streets, end of quote.

I don't want to remove this cornerstone, at least of all at this particular time. Thank the witnesses for being here and I'm going to put my entire statement in the record in place of what I just said.

DOUG MCVAY: That was from a Senate International Narcotics Caucus hearing from May of 2014, the co-chairs were Chuck Grassley, republican of Iowa, and Diane Feinstein, Democrat of California. Senator Grassley is the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

And that's it for today. I'm Doug McVay and this was Century of Lies. Thank you for listening.

Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of Drug War Facts dot org. Century Of Lies is heard on 420 Radio dot org on Mondays at 11 am and 11 pm, and Saturdays at 4 am, all times are pacific. We are heard on time4hemp dot com on Wednesdays between 1 and 2pm pacific along with our sister program Cultural Baggage. And we're on The Detour Talk Network at thedetour.us on Tuesdays at 8:30pm. A few of the stations out there that carry Century Of Lies include WERU 89.9 FM in Blue Hill, Maine; WPRR 1680 am 95.3 fm in Grand Rapids, Michigan; WIEC 102.7 FM in Eau Claire, WI; WGOT-LP 94.7 FM in Gainesville, Florida; KRFP 90.3 FM in Moscow, Idaho; Valley Free Radio WXOJ-LP 103.3 FM in Northampton, Massachusetts, KOWA-LP 106.5 FM in Olympia, Washington, and Free Radio Santa Cruz 101.3 fm in Santa Cruz California.

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We'll be back next week with more news and commentary on the drug war and this Century Of Lies. For now, for the drug truth network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!