By Marsha Stanton
Patrick Sison, Associated Press
The Oct. 26 article “The untold story of how Utah doctors and Big Pharma helped drive the national opioid epidemic” overlooks the millions of people in pain while hunting for scapegoats to explain the opioid crisis.
I know Dr. Lynn Webster and have worked with him and read his book “The Painful Truth.” The picture the paper paints of him is not the devoted and scrupulous clinician I know. The story’s black-and-white depiction of the opioid crisis distracts from thoughtful answers that we desperately need.
Sadly, the nation is in the midst of an opioid abuse crisis. But we also are in the throes of a chronic pain crisis. The causes of both crises are intertwined, and one can’t be addressed while the other is ignored. It is true that people abuse and die from opioids and other controlled substances while others illicitly profit from their distribution. But it also is true that, for many of the more than 100 million people in the nation suffering from chronic, debilitating pain, opioids are their only measure of relief. For this group of people, working, eating, sleeping, thinking and living another day are only possible through the relief that some opioids provide. These people are not criminals or ne’er-do-wells. They are your relatives, neighbors, colleagues and passersby quietly living with an affliction they don’t share widely. My life was and is dedicated to responsibly caring for pain patients — as is Webster’s.
Feeling the pressure to act, many politicians have taken it upon themselves to go beyond passing legislation to dabble in practicing medicine. If some measures to restrict or ban access to entire classes of painkillers are enacted as a way to reduce opioid abuse, you will extinguish the will to live for people with chronic pain.
We’ve been down this road before. In the 1990s, policymakers took a broad sword to the complex problem of crime. Within time, Congress and state legislatures imposed “truth-in-sentencing” laws. Measures such as mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes and you’re out” spread like wildfire across the nation. Politicians merchandised these laws as evidence of their mettle to “get tough on crime” among voters who were fed up with the status quo.
Only with the benefit of hindsight do we see the bitter fruit borne from truth-in-sentencing laws: Our society imprisons more people — disproportionately African-American — than anywhere else in the industrialized world, imposes harsh sentences on nonviolent offenders and succeeds only in driving up recidivism as well as the cost to taxpayers to house hardened inmates. Today, both Republicans and Democrats are uniting around criminal justice reform either to atone for or at least acknowledge the excesses of the laws they or their predecessors passed. It’s “Groundhog Day” meets “The Twilight Zone.”
The moral of the story: When you overreact to a crisis, often, you create a new crisis in different packaging that ultimately requires another “fix.”
As a clinician, parent and taxpayer, I pray that we work hard to separate the real crisis from intoxicating hysteria and choose listening instead of overreacting. There is no question we need to replace opioids as a first-line method of treating pain. How we do this may be the most important question we can answer. Pain always will be with us; a new national crisis should not.