Heroin Overdose?

Journalist Nick Davies has  written  about legalising Heroin before and more recently. This is a rebuttal by an Australian professor and researcher. 

Nick Davies is right about one thing; drug policy is typically surrounded by an absurd amount of disinformation and misinformation. The truth is not always easy to find.  Governments the world over are perennially advised by experts of the day and the scientific establishment. Science, like most human activities, has within it schools of different thought and is very subject to the winds of its own internal fashions.  Phrenology in the 1930’s was one glaring example and the recent man made global warming debate is another. Many of my friends in the UK and on the East coast of the US are desperate for a good dose of global warming to thaw out their cars, homes and driveways.  The dearth of quality information in this field, and in many cases its deliberate suppression implies that, to borrow another of Davies’ metaphors, the policy debate continues to impersonate a drunken man on a dark night.  The main thing I learnt from Davies’ polemic was that the political and social left dislike Margaret Thatcher – who would have guessed?

Davies dutifully recites the many alibis and mantras of the liberal drug left including principally that heroin itself is intrinsically benign, and it is the illegal status of the drug along with the high cost, the impurities with which it is mixed and injected, and the unknown purity of the drug which are responsible for its toxicity. 

Astonishingly Davies even manages to trivialize heroin overdose, and claims it is relatively rare.  Perhaps this extraordinary claim is due to the fact that his references are mainly to Wikipedia, advised by a few drug liberalization sites or other journalists.

It is well known that the rate of death amongst heroin addicts is about 16 times higher than that of non-addicts, with some estimates from Sweden placing it 55 times higher, and others 70 times higher.  Overdose is not rare amongst heroin addicts, and many studies show that it is a common feature of people who have been injecting it for several years, and more have overdosed than have not.  In some Australian studies about half overdose several times annually.  Rather than heroin being safe as suggested, the levels of opiates in the blood are often relatively low or in the therapeutic range at post-mortem.  Therefore the reason some addicts die is often not well understood, although in the overdose situation it may be mixed with other drugs.  This does not exonerate heroin as it is a depressant drug, and obviously depressant drugs can sum together, or even potentiate the effects of each other to have a super-additive effect to halt breathing.  Moreover opiate addiction, which includes methadone and heroin, likely changes the central appetite mechanism deep in the hypothalamus of the forebrain, so that the appetite for other drugs is increased.  Davies also fails to mention that many heroin programs are actually heroin and methadone programs.  Heroin works for such a short time, that the overnight doses have to be of methadone to keep patients comfortable during the night.  So heroin programs are more properly thought of as “heroin top up programs.”

Rather than heroin being benign for the brain, the scientific literature is replete with studies and claims that long term opiate use causes damage to the mood centres in the limbic system, and the extended limbic system which includes the hippocampus and hypothalamus, which it turns out are also responsible for memory formation, learning and hormone control.  There is no such thing as a drug addict with a good memory and this is not related to the legal status of the drug.  Similarly the majority of opiate addicted patients have psychological disorders with rates in various studies particularly of depression and anxiety at over 70-90%.  Similarly epilepsy is far more common in opiate dependent patients, and there are several reasons for this.  Opiates have been shown to impair the renewal of brain stem cells, particularly in the hippocampus.  As this area is in charge of memory formation and emotionality, and is frequently the site of origin of fits, disturbances in these functions are to be expected, and are in fact commonly observed.  Indeed opiates have been shown to impair the growth of all organs, likely by impairing stem cell growth and activity.  This likely accounts for the evidence of disease and dysfunction in virtually every organ system of the body in long term users.  Opiates have actually been shown to impair the ability of cells to divide by blocking the normal progression of stem cells through the cell cycle, right at the very beginning of these transitions.  This effect is exacerbated by the action of morphine and its derivates including heroin to trigger programmed cell death, which researchers refer to as “apoptosis”.  Clearly the increased cell death, and the relative inability to replace the lost cells can hardly be good either for the health of the body’s cells and organs individually, or the patient as a whole.

It has also been shown that – pure – opiates both suppress and stimulate the immune system.  Whilst some may find this dual action confusing, it is reminiscent of an old car struggling to keep up with the speed limit with a dying engine.  As the car goes up the highway it blows smoke everywhere, and gets pulled over by the police for failing to keep up to the speed limit!  It is also very noisy, as its engine rev’s hard to do its best.  It is clearly working both hard and weakly at the same time.  This seems to be the picture of the opiates saturated immune system.  It parallels other clinical disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, where patients with an overactive immune system also display evidence of generalized immunosuppression.  This immune stimulation is particularly damaging for the body, and likely takes a big toll of all organ systems.  Such immunity has been found to be important in many diseases including dementia, atherosclerosis, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, chronic periodontitis, cancer development and the ageing process itself.  Opiates have been shown to directly stimulate many aspects of the innate immune system, an evolutionarily ancient and very powerful arm of the immune response which acts quickly and promptly to alert the body to danger signals, and to summon other yet more powerful components of the truly matching adaptive immune response.  Moreover components of the innate immune system have now been shown to be also involved in controlling brain formation, synapse formation between nerve cells, brain stem cell generation and differentiation, and controlling neuronal and dendrite growth in the brain.  The immunosuppressive action of opiates increases the infectivity of, and damage caused by HIV in the immune system and brain, and Hepatitis C damage in the liver.

In particular one of the most sensitive tissues are actually stem cells, as these fragile baby cells, which all carry opiate receptors, are unusually sensitive to the noxious effects both of opiate agents and immunity.  This means that opiates actually pack a triple punch on cells throughout the organism:  there is the devastating effect of opiates on cell growth, and particularly stem cell growth; there is the stimulating effects of opiates on the immune system which leads to damage to the body as a whole; and then there is the compounded interactive effect of the immune effects of opiates particularly on the stem cells, which is likely more severe than the effect of either action working alone. 

Evidence of damage to the vascular system has also been published, which has been linked with stroke and heart attack.  Evidence of widespread hormonal disruption has also been shown.  The dental disease is well known, and this in its turn has been shown to be linked with higher rates of systemic pathology including hardening of the arteries and the development of dementia, probably by further stimulating the immune system.  Opiates disrupt cellular barriers both in the gut, allowing increased access of highly toxic germs to the blood stream, and in the brain where the immune system gains increased access to the nerve cells of the critical centres of the brain through a leaky blood brain barrier.  Similarly bone healing and formation is disturbed by opiates, likely by both stem cell and immune stimulatory mechanisms.  90% of an American study of opiate dependent males, with a mean age of about 40 years, had evidence of measurable and clinically significant bone loss, called osteopaenia or osteoporosis.  This is very important as it integrates the effects of addiction over significant time.  The liberalists argue that opiates are without intrinsic harm themselves, whilst conservatives argue the obvious denigration of virtually all drug users with time.  In one sense both might be true.  If the net defect suffered is only minor – say 5% annually, then over 20 years, the total deficit suffered is 64%!  Over 40 years this is 87%!  This implies that studies which demonstrate short term efficacy, typically over 6-12 months, really have essentially nothing to say about the long term toxicity of the drugs, as none of them have the necessary sensitivity to assess damage at this high degree of precision.

In fact there are very few published studies which examine the effect on physiology over the very long term.  Those which are available all paint a very bleak picture, with one major American study recently calling for geriatricians to be appointed to those addicts who survive to the age of 50 years, as their health was essentially falling apart in many body systems with evidence of widespread physical and mental disease, disability, misery and – of course – death in those who had not survived to complete the survey.

As for giving heroin out, one must be very careful.  The recent report of the Canadian heroin trial showed that it had a primary failure rate over one year of 40%.  This makes it far from the panacea depicted in its marketing blurb.  Data from the Sydney injecting groom, a room where illegal heroin can be taken under the supervision of Government employed nurses, showed that the rate of overdose was over 30 times higher than that in the general community.  In other words, in the presence of support staff clients were more than happy to “go for the magic big hit”, with near fatal overdoses on many occasions only averted by prompt action from the attending professional staff.

Davies mentions the disrupted social networks characteristic of heroin users.  It is sad that people who are dearly loved by their families die alone.  The utter chaos surrounding the heroin addicts life is legendary.  So many patients have told me that while they are using they think they are only hurting themselves; however when they get clean they realize how destructive their drug abuse is on all their family, friends and social relationships.  Most of these patients tell me that the best thing they could do is to come upon a bag of free heroin, and when they are sick many admit praying for a free hit.  However they freely and universally admit that this is also the worst thing that could happen to their own children.  When I ask them which view is correct, their view for themselves or their view for their children, they start to see that they have been badly deceived, and wickedly seduced.  It also becomes very obvious to them that they will not be truly free from their addiction in their mind until the way they think about heroin for themselves is the same as the way they think about heroin for their children.  As much is likely also true of societies.

As to heroin use being normalized in Switzerland and Zurich, that is not what the many refugees from that city who have fled all the way to Australia have told me on many occasions, nor is it the story which is in the published medical press.  Many have fled the gross social degradation which have taken over the forced closure of the Swiss “Needlepark” [ “Platzspitz”], and the criminal explosion which accompanied it.  According to published reports the top 1 meter of soil had to be bulldozed out of the park to clean it up.  Its closure only saw it move over the road to the abandoned railway station. 

Davies’ claim that the introduction of methadone was a cunning move to push up the price of black market heroin betrays his obvious agenda.  The simple fact is that a wave of heroin abuse has taken the world since the 1960’s which the various programs were designed to allay.  I found his figures for the majority of property crime in the UK being related to heroin use interesting in that they are virtually identical to those from Australia. 

The arguments of the left are seductively simple, but they are best addressed by stating the obvious from everyday life, the social, physical and psychological nightmare of active addiction.  These are the hard lessons learnt in places such as Sweden in 1968 and in Zurich where liberal policies such as those presently advocated were tried on the basis of seductive supposedly compassionate advice such as that which Davies and his ideological colleagues presently so eloquently argue.  Whilst there is a superfluity of robust evidence available in the scientific literature to refute such claims, it is also clear that much more work in this area could be done.  Nor is it relevant only to addiction medicine.

The fact that opiate addicts notoriously suffer from exorbitant rates of atherosclerosis, dementia, psychological disorders, osteoporosis, dental disease, immune dysfunction, hormonal disturbances and disruption of their sleep-wake cycles and appetite drives, and a very high rate of some cancers, implies that if we understood more of this process we could treat these major disorders much better.  Moreover, collectively they demonstrate an acceleration of the ageing process, so we would likely begin to understand the ageing process much better, potentially developing treatments which might increase the human “healthspan”, or our number of disability free years, minimizing our risk of long term disablement and years spent in a nursing home.  And the deficit of detailed long term studies of these important issues is clearly a major gap in our understanding, which urgently needs to be addressed.  Whilst it is true that there exists enough data in the published science to effectively refute the raucous arguments for legalization of all presently proscribed drugs, it is equally true that much more could be done in the toxicological sciences to explore these issues in more detail.  That western societies allow mainstream science to continue to overlook such areas, whilst drugs pose so present and imminent a major social threat, is an international disgrace, and one which can only be overcome by the will of the people being felt by the policy makers, to properly protect the coming generations. 

For example cannabis has been shown to be linked with eight cancers, including congenital leukaemia and brain cancer, and has been shown to be mutagenic.  This may be related to its genotoxic effects mediated via AP-1 and MAP kinase pathway activation.  Opiates also stimulate these same pathways, and have also been shown to be linked with carcinogenesis.  Environment has been shown to impact gene regulation through epigenetic regulation including chromatin methylation confirming the Barker hypothesis that in utero and neonatal influences can permanently affect gene expression for decades to come.  There is no liberalization argument to address genotoxicity in this generation, and no liberalist defence of genetic mutagenicity in the next generation.  The demonstration in many studies that parental opiate use produces body and organ growth retardation, impairs brain growth, induces organ structural abnormalities, and intellectual and behavioural disabilities in affected offspring into their teenage years has no liberalist defence, and is in fact egregariously indefensible.  As developed nations we have much more to learn and much more to do

The author runs the largest heroin detox clinic in Queensland Australia, and has published many papers on heroin and drug addiction and its treatment.

Source: Stuart Reece Feb.2010

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