Los Angeles-area general practitioner Dr. Lisa Tseng was sentenced to thirty years to life this month after three of her patients fatally overdosed on painkillers. This marks the first time in US history a doctor has been convicted of murder for overprescribing drugs.
Tseng’s case shines a light on one of the single biggest problems facing our nation today: Opiate addiction – the dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about. Drug addiction barely merited a discussion in the recent presidential debates, though several states where primaries were held are awash in drug problems.
Opiate addiction has a very different face these days. It could be anyone you know.
Imagine your stereotype of the heroin addict: a seedy, strung-out guy with a needle in his arm nodding out in the bathroom. But opiate addiction has a very different face these days. It could be anyone you know; blue collar workers, housewives, CEO’s, teenagers.
It starts innocently. When someone gets hurt, a doctor prescribes Oxycontin (or another opiate) for the pain.
The medication works – almost too well. People become accustomed to its effects, and imperceptibly begin to rely on them. Even after people recover, they start to arrange their days around the pills: When and how many to take, how to manage work and kids, when not to drink or drive.
Before they know it, they’re addicted.
For a while, things keep humming along. Until the doctor cuts off the prescription.
Eventually these people face a choice: Find another way to get the drug (which is quite—nearly impossible to do without rehab), or turn to heroin for a similar high. Bags of heroin are cheaply available on certain street corners in every city. When someone is seriously addicted, the lure of heroin becomes nearly impossible to resist.
This is the situation we are facing today. What has led to this?
When I was a DEA agent, I lost many colleagues to the drug war. The problem is greed. There is simply too much money to be made selling drugs, legally or illegally.
Physicians like Lisa Tseng are not immune to temptation. Her trial revealed that the clinic where she worked alongside her husband brought in 5 million dollars in three years.
For a fascinating look at the “pill mills” that hooked tens of thousands of people in Florida and then flowed north to decimate entire communities, I highly recommend the book American Pain by journalist John Temple (from Rowman and Littlefield, publisher of my upcoming book). Temple does a great job outlining the almost-too-crazy-to-be-true story of how shady twin brothers teamed up with an unscrupulous doctor to make tens of millions of dollars with their chain of pain clinics – and jumpstarted America’s opioid crisis in the process.
Cracking down on these clinics and the doctors who recklessly overprescribe painkillers is a start. But as a veteran of the war on drugs in the seventies (which we all now pretty much concede was a colossal failure) I am keeping a close eye on what comes next. Someone new will certainly rise up to take El Chapo’s place in the Sinaloa cartel. Somebody equally enterprising will also soon find another way to profit off the misery of drug addiction.