Conaway Drops Ball on Addiction Prevention

conaway

If we regulated OxyContin as rigorously as we regulate medical marijuana in New Jersey, there’d be a heckuva lot less people getting hooked on heroin!

(Cherry Hill, NJ) –Opioids are medications prescribed by your doctor to relieve pain. They’re a godsend for those who suffer. But Opioids are incredibly addictive and can serve as a gateway to heroin abuse. New Jersey has a heroin crisis and in many cases, heroin addiction begins in a doctor’s office.  Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) is chairman of the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee which recently held hearings on a bill that would ensure physicians share the burden of preventing heroin addiction when they prescribe opioids.The bill “would require doctors to talk with patients about the addiction potential of drugs before prescribing them.” Sounds like a great idea huh? You might even ask yourself why these life-saving chats aren’t already required, much like we already require a written prescription.

Currently, all you need to get opioids like OxyContin, Percocet, Morphoine et al is a signed ‘script with dosing instructions from a doctor. Any doctor. Heck you don’t even need to see your doctor, you can just fetch the little piece of paper at the front desk and you’re off to get your fix! Our current model is, in many ways and for far too many people, a frictionless path to addiction stating with prescription opioids and eventually graduating to intravenous (IV) heroin use.

It surprised me to learn that Chairman Conaway (who’s also a physician) opposes mandated doctor-patient talks about the dangers of  these hazardous drugs. With peer-reviewed studies showing as many as “3/4 high school heroin users starting with prescription opioids,” we should be doing all we can to safeguard anyone talking these incredibly addictive medications. Especially our youngsters. Right?

I tried for a week to track down Dr. Conaway for comment, and although is office tried at first to connect us, I was unable to get him on the record to share his thoughts. If I had, I would have reminded him that we already require a prescription from a doctor to dispense opiates. Why can’t we require a word of caution along with the ‘script? How’s that different? I might have asked him to justify the “sacrosanct” nature of a doc/patient relationship when the currently arrangement leads to addiction for so many people. Also, as an alternative to requiring the doctor to have this little chat, would Dr. Conaway be amenable to having the pharmacist do it instead? I regret not connecting with him because answers to those questions would surely have made this column more meaningful.

Dr. Conaway’s staff did express a certain chagrin that, lost in this debate is all the stuff he (and his committee) are doing to meet our state’s growing heroin menace. Stuff like expanding treatment options. Or legalizing Narcam, a drug that reverses the effects of a heroin/opioid overdose. These are all good measures to take once the proverbial horse has left the barn. But when it comes to heroin addiction, an ounce of prevention is worth many tons of cure. And having doctors – who are the gatekeepers to powerful addictive drugs – share the burden of curbing addiction before it takes root isn’t too much to ask of someone whose job is to do no harm. So for Dr. Conaway to not stand with addicts and their families is especially galling because as chairman of the Assembly Health  and Senior Services Committee he has outsized influence over all health-related bills in Trenton. If he doesn’t like a bill, for whatever reason, the bill dies. I understand deference shown to the chairman because he’s a medical doctor. But what happens when the doctors are the problem?

If you look at the 25 towns in New Jersey currently facing the the biggest heroin-related challenges, you’ll find the usual suspects like Newark, Paterson, and Camden. You’ll also see that no corner of the state goes unscathed by heroin’s scourge. Shockingly, Ocean, Monmouth, and Middlesex County towns comprise more than 1/2 of this list!

“Dr. Conaway, I implore you to post this bill, and stop preventing New Jersey parents from becoming informed about the addictive qualities of the medicine their children are being prescribed,” Elaine Pozycki told a press conference in Trenton last week. She should know. Her son Steven succumbed to heroin addiction much too young. Unfortunately Assemblyman/Doctor Herb Conaway remains convinced that when it comes to heroin abuse it’s better to swat at the myriad symptoms than just address the problem of addiction at its source: a doctor’s prescription pad. Which makes Dr. Conaway’s defense of an increasingly lethal status quo all the more, well, indefensible.

This isn’t about the vast majority of doctors who take care to ensure their patients know the risks of opioids. It’s not about any doctor left smarting at the suggestion they’re part of the problem. This isn’t even about those unethical monsters who’ve monetized the addictions of others and don’t care if their patients get hooked. This is about addicts and their families and creating an atmosphere in New Jersey where patients (and their families) can make informed choices about opioids.

Jay Lassiter is a long-time New Jersey political gadfly. Before arriving in the Garden State, Jay spent 28 days in drug rehab back in 2003 (for meth) and saw first hand how traumatic getting off heroin can be. Compared to heroin, meth detox is like trip to the spa. More people should know that.