Every year, scientists, government organizations and other experts make progress in our nation’s battle against addiction. In 2017, several developments made news and helped people learn new facts about drugs.
Here are several key areas that saw advances and innovations:
Progress in the Battle Against Opioid Addiction
The opioid addiction epidemic was among the nation’s top health concerns for 2017. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data this year indicating that fentanyl and other synthetic opioids killed 21,000 people in 2016, making these substances the leading cause of overdose deaths in the U.S. The CDC found that deaths from opioid overdoses were so significant they fueled a decline in overall U.S. life expectancy. Research published in JAMA Psychiatry reported heroin use in the U.S. saw a five-fold increase in the past decade and dependence on heroin has tripled.
These facts about drugs led President Donald Trump to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency. The opioid epidemic is now on par with some of the worst health crises in history, including the 1990s HIV crisis. Others took action against painkiller addiction in 2017 as well. As part of an investigation into how the marketing and distribution of prescription drugs has fueled the opioid addiction crisis, over 40 U.S. attorneys general jointly filed subpoenas to major manufacturers and distributors of opioids.
Recognizing that overprescribing of addictive painkillers has contributed to the epidemic, several pharmacies made the decision in 2017 to limit opioid prescriptions. CVS capped prescriptions at seven days for certain conditions, among patients new to pain treatment, and prioritized immediate-release formulations over extended-release painkillers. Express Scripts similarly limited the length of a first prescription and restricted prescriptions to short-acting drugs.
Changing Drugs of Choice Among Teens
National drug use surveys released in 2017 showed that adolescents’ drug preferences have changed. According to the Monitoring the Future survey, more than a third of high school seniors have used marijuana and nearly one in three have tried “vaping.” Vaporizers are used to heat a substance, usually marijuana or nicotine, so that it can be inhaled or puffed. The problem is most young people don’t know what they’re vaping, and research suggests teens who vape are more likely to experiment with cigarettes later in life. With legalization efforts, teens do not think cannabis is a risky drug, leading some experts to predict that marijuana use among teens will rise significantly in the next few years.
A bright spot in the 2017 survey was that illicit drug use was the lowest it has been in the past three decades. Prescription painkiller use fell dramatically, in some cases (e.g., use of OxyContin) reaching a historic low. As with previous years, alcohol was the number-one drug of choice among teens and young people continued the trend of switching from cigarettes to marijuana.
New Medications to Treat Addiction
In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration made several strides in addressing addiction. It approved a monthly injectable form of buprenorphine (brand name Sublocade) to treat opioid addiction that is more difficult to sell on the black market than other forms of the drug. It helps prevent relapse and reduces drug cravings and is injected once a month rather than swallowed each day in tablet form. Some experts believe this development could dramatically improve treatment success because it frees people from the need to remember to take a medication every day and could be widely accessible in criminal justice settings.
The FDA also announced that it would work to facilitate the development of new addiction medications and address coverage gaps for treatment. In a release, the FDA commissioner emphasized the importance of medication-assisted treatment in reducing drug overdose deaths and keeping people in treatment and said that anyone seeking help for opioid addiction should be offered approved medications as part of their care.
The year 2017 also saw the world’s first clinical study into a controversial treatment for alcohol addiction: MDMA. Scientists at Imperial College London led the trial in which doctors gave 20 relapsing heavy drinkers MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, along with therapy. The goal is to determine if MDMA has therapeutic potential as a treatment for alcoholism. Similar investigations have been conducted with psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and the powerful anesthetic ketamine, with positive initial results.
Researchers also continued their search for an addiction vaccine in 2017, one for cocaine and one for heroin and fentanyl. The vaccines are not yet ready for testing in humans, and may still be years off, but clinical trials are becoming closer to a reality.
“The Opioid Epidemic Is A National Public Health Emergency” – Huffington Post
“CVS Will Limit Opioid Prescriptions To 7 Days” – CNN.com
“Doctors Criticize Express Scripts For Plan To Limit Opioids” – Washington Examiner
“Monitoring the Future 2017 Survey Results” – National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIH)
“Statement From FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., On The Approval of A New Formulation of Buprenorphine and FDA’s Efforts To Promote More Widespread Innovation And Access To Opioid Addiction Treatments” – FDA.gov
“World’s First Trials of MDMA to Treat Alcohol Addiction Set to Begin” – The Guardian
“It May Soon Be Possible To Immunize People Against Opioid Addiction” – Forbes