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Maia Szalavitz Maia Szalavitz

The New York Times’ Coverage of Other Drugs Still Doesn’t Cut It


The paper of record eventually backed marijuana legalization. Yet it continues to fête drug warriors and stigmatize addiction.

10 Substance
Score


The New York Times is demonstrating the positive power of journalism in its recent editorial series, “Repeal Prohibition, Again,” calling for full legalization of marijuana. In each of its historic articles, it has plainly debunked propaganda it previously legitimized and finally given the mainstream stamp of approval to the perspective that has seemed obvious for decades to anyone who seriously investigated the issue. This may well help turn the tide for national change.

In its coverage of other drugs, however, the Times remains blinded by the blinkers of prohibition, stigma and criminalization. In an article headlined “Missouri Remains Alone in Resisting Prescription Drug Database,” reporter Alan Schwarz tells the story of a pharmacist who is also a deputy sheriff, investigating the private medical records of patients suspected of obtaining prescription painkillers illegally.

He describes the officer in what can fairly be viewed as heroic terms:

Mr. Logan, 61, holstered two guns, slipped on a bulletproof vest and jumped into his truck. Because in his small corner of America’s epidemic of prescription drug abuse, Mr. Logan is no ordinary pharmacist. He is also a sheriff’s deputy who, when alerted to someone acquiring fraudulent drug prescriptions, goes out to catch that person himself.

“I’m only one guy, and for every person we get to, there are probably 100 who we can’t,” Mr. Logan said. “How many people have to get addicted and die for us to do what everyone else is doing about it?”

The 49 other US states have databases that allow varying degrees of law enforcement access to medical records of people who have been prescribed controlled substances like Oxycontin, Valium, Percocet and Xanax. And the opposition to creating such a database in Missouri is based on a frankly odious perspective. While arguing that medical records should remain private, the leading opponent of creating a database—Rob Schaaf, a Republican state senator with a penchant for “liberty” talk—says he doesn’t care if privacy for some leads to overdose for others because “If they overdose and kill themselves, it just removes them from the gene pool.”

She’s not with her children because she was arrested and put in jail by a supposed healthcare provider—not because of anything intrinsic to her use of opioids—and is basically portrayed as guilty unless proven innocent.

I imagine there would be far more resistance—and a far more balanced article on the relative value of privacy compared to the needs of law enforcement—if states were considering a database of Viagra recipients or women who take birth control.

But this is an article about the evils of misusing opioids, so the Times leaves the privacy argument to fester in the eugenic stew of its Republican advocate. (To be fair, it does also quote a pain patient regarding her desire not to be stigmatized.)

Schwarz goes on to describe how deputy/pharmacist Logan sometimes actually jumps over the counter and arrests people “on the spot” if they come to one of his stores with a forged or otherwise illegitimate prescription. That’s a real health-care pro in action!

And throughout, Schwarz tells the story of one of Logan’s arrests, describing a sobbing mother—the one he’d holstered his guns and put on his bulletproof vest to go out and arrest—now in jail. She was charged with “doctor shopping” after being tipped off by a physician’s assistant who suspected she was lying to get drugs. Logan found that “in the previous 10 weeks, [she] had been prescribed, from three doctors, 171 total days’ worth of hydrocodone, and 140 days’ worth of tramadol and Percocet, other painkillers.”

However, the mom—whom the Times names, and even photographs during her arrest, despite the fact that she has not been convicted or taken a plea and refused to speak to the reporter—tells it differently. Shwarz, who is at the precinct observing even the interview the woman gives to a detective, reports that she says that she had pain from scoliosis and surgery and didn’t know it was illegal to go to several doctors seeking relief—and she doesn’t see herself as addicted.

The article closes with this quote from the sheriff:

“I understand what they’re saying about privacy, I really do,” Sheriff Walter said. “But look at this—this is just one woman, one family. Those kids, they’re wondering where Mama is tonight. She’s hooked on painkillers, because the system allowed her to be.”

In singling out Missouri for not having a database and profiling uncritically someone who arrests addicted people, the Times sends the implicit message that adding a database so more such arrests can occur is useful.

She’s not with her children because she was arrested and put in jail by a supposed healthcare provider—not because of anything intrinsic to her use of opioids—and is basically portrayed as guilty unless proven innocent.

Is there any other medical condition in the world for which this would be acceptable treatment? No evidence is provided that suggests she’s not a genuine pain patient beyond the number of pills she was prescribed—and it’s well known in pain management that some patients require extremely large doses. If she is simply seeking pain relief, this is a travesty. It’s not an argument for a prescription drug database for Missouri—it’s a cautionary tale for the rest of the states.

But it’s just as absurd if we genuinely see addiction as a disease. Jail is not going to help this mom with either her pain or her addiction, if it actually exists. In fact, it could cost her her job and her children—both factors that might aid her recovery, if her recovery was actually what was being sought here.

A sensible system, upon catching someone with a potentially dubious prescription, would not rip them from their family and cold-turkey them in a cage. Indeed, given that the best treatment for opioid addiction is maintenance with an opioid, why not immediately offer her a Suboxone or methadone prescription, following a proper psychiatric and medical examination, along with counseling and other support as needed?

The fact that no one has even tried creating such a process in the US speaks to the reality that we still see addiction as a crime.

While a prescription drug database might fight opioid addiction if it were used to help affected patients, this is not what’s going on here. And the Times seems completely blind to the problems with this approach to addiction. In singling out Missouri for not having a database and profiling uncritically someone who arrests addicted people, it sends the implicit message that adding a database so more such arrests can occur is a useful tactic.

The establishment now recognizes that marijuana possession arrests are senseless but, at least as far as this article goes, seems unable to see that the same is true for other drugs as well.

Maia Szalavitz is one of the nation’s leading neuroscience and addiction journalists, and a columnist at Substance.com. She has contributed to TimeThe New York TimesScientific American MindThe Washington Post and many other publications. She has also published five books, including Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006), and is currently finishing her sixth, Unbroken Brain, which examines why seeing addiction as a developmental or learning disorder can help us better understand, prevent and treat it. Her last column for Substance.com was about the theory of addiction as a learning disorder, not simply a neurochemical one.