4 July 2021

Benzodiazepines in psychiatry and addiction medicine - do they still have a place in chronic care?

Sydney Addiction Seminar

Wednesday 28th November, 2018

“Benzodiazepines in psychiatry and addiction medicine - do they still have a place in chronic care?”

Vladan Starcevic, Paul Haber, Andrew Byrne. Moderator Dr Richard Hallinan.


Psychiatrist and Associate Professor Vladan Starcevic spoke about the safety and effectiveness of diazepam and related drugs for anxiety.  He stressed the poor results from almost every treatment tried since the time of Hippocrates for this common and disabling condition.  This changed dramatically with the introduction of benzodiazepines starting with chordiazepoxide (Librium) in 1959.  We were shown numerous trials which included comparisons with tricyclic antidepressants, SSRI’s, SNRI’s and non-drug alternatives (talking therapies, yoga, acupuncture, etc).  The benzodiazepines came out as more effective nearly every time.  The speaker emphasised the low rates of side effects (‘almost none’) as well as the low rates of dependence on the drugs (around 2% in most studies).  It seems that sedation is not considered a side effect of sedatives but a dose related effect, sometimes wanted, as for insomnia, or unwanted for daytime anxiety patients. 

Some myths were busted such as the canard that antidepressants are not habit forming, do not develop tolerance and do not have any withdrawals (further supportive studies were cited).  The saga of the use and alleged abuse of fluoxetine (Prozac) was quoted.  Professor Starcevic almost sounded like an advertisement for benzodiazepines yet he is clearly expert in the field and quoted rigorous studies to support his views.  He also serves on a number of international committees on the treatment of anxiety and related disorders.  We have all seen the pendulum swing from Valium and related drugs being the panacea to the pariah.  Despite this prescribers all know the great benefits which can be had by using careful assessments, judicious prescribing with psychosocial supports for stress cases who can be very vulnerable and for whom there are few effective alternatives. 


This led into a talk by Prof Haber of some aspects of pharmacology of GABA receptors and the respective places in the neurone where barbiturates, alcohol, benzodiazepines, etc, were thought to act … and how flumazanil can block the process of hyper-polarisation when chloride ions are allowed into the cell making it less likely to depolarise.  Then Prof Haber reminded us of the origin of the suffix ‘PAM’ attached to so many of the benzodiazepines - and said it might be the only thing some audience members might remember from the whole evening.  Positive Allosteric Modulators (PAM) of the neurone.  We were shown slides from PBS to demonstrate the enormous popularity of sedatives in Australia since the benzodiazepines replaced the barbiturates from about 1960 onwards. 


I spoke next about our negative experience using the zero-tolerance approach.  This had resulted in many patients relapsing after periods of benzodiazepine reductions or abstinence, often associated with high potency products such as alprazolam, clonazepam or flunitrazepam (Xanax, Rivotril, Hypnodorm).  These were sometimes prescribed but most commonly were obtained from the street market.  We selected some long-term patients who were clearly benzodiazepine dependent and allowed a limited daily dose, initially under supervision.  This was most usually diazepam in doses from 2mg to 15mg daily. 

American treatment guidelines point out that just because a patient in on OTP they should not be denied benefits of benzodiazepines for anxiety, panic disorder, insomnia or epilepsy.  And those with dependency need to have this addressed.  Yet this should not simply mean “Valium on demand”. 

I was asked whether I was treating dependence or psychiatric symptoms of stress and anxiety: which is almost like the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Just as methadone maintenance patients may comprise pain management cases as well as some recreational drug users, the matter becomes academic once the patient gets to a certain point in their opiate consumption.  It is now widely agreed that whether one started drug use in a medical setting or the illicit market, opiate dependency treatment should be the same. 

Withdrawal symptoms from both opiates and benzodiazepines usually involve dysaesthesia, anxiety and/or insomnia.  Hence it is not surprising that for some OTP patients, the consumption of opiates and benzodiazepines is closely aligned and equally important to them. 

We have long used the principles of ‘universal precautions’ which assumes that all patients are potentially dependent and should be treated as such, with some dose supervision, some counselling and occasional urine toxicology testing.  Equally, all patients may be genuine anxiety disorder sufferers and thus deserve consideration of pharmacotherapy for that just like any other medical or psychiatric patient. 

10 June 2021

This is my Covid warning email sent to family members on 26th Jan 2020 ...

Subject: Corona virus alert is serious and we should all be taking note.

I have followed this and it is a REAL worry, not only for China but for us as well. 

At this early stage we don’t know that much … but that this disease is a very serious form of respiratory infection which can spread from droplets just like colds and influenza. 

We would be crazy to eat in a busy restaurant in Hurstville just at the moment.  Or to travel to China at all, probably. 

We should all have and wear face masks whenever in public transport or enclosed public spaces.  I have a small supply at the surgery but any chemist should supply (but Gold Cross Pharmacy in Redfern have run out already!!). 

So please take this threat seriously and get take-away food, avoid public transport if possible and WEAR a mask when out of the house. 

In a few more days our entire lives could be changed by both the disease and our authorities’ response to it.  Already China has restricted travel to and from large parts of the country.  Wuhan is at a crossroads in central China and twice in the past has been the capital of China.  Similar things happened with the Great Plague in 1349 … but much slower … see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death

I wish I could say, like global warming, that this was all a hoax … but I strongly fear it is for ‘very real’.  AB ..

18 October 2020

Face-masks not only prevent Covid infections but reduce severity in those who contract virus. New UCSF analysis.

An impressive paper from Dr Monica Gandhi and colleagues* has brought together several strands of evidence showing that as well as reducing Covid-19 infections, the wearing of masks substantially reduces the severity of infections. 

Along with a persuasive hamster experiment from Hong Kong, they quote the Diamond Princess in Japan and the Greg Mortimer cruise ship in South America where symptomatic infections were 80% and 20% respectively.  This radical difference is alleged to be largely due to universal wearing of masks on the latter ship, including N95 masks for all crew members.  Several examples are quoted of large Covid clusters in factories which supplied masks with up to 95% of infections being asymptomatic.  The authors use other historical, geographical and basic science evidence to support the conclusion that the quantity of virus exposure (‘inoculum’) is related to infection severity. 

One can understand how climate change denial has a political slant but the politicisation of mask wearing seems beyond explanation.  Older readers may remember a minority who refused to use seat belts when they were introduced.  They were soon silenced by statistics showing reduced injuries and saved lives.  Masks were widely used in the 1918 influenza epidemic – and made compulsory in many jurisdictions.  Yet there were ‘conscientious objectors’ then as now. 

We should all wear masks when in buses, trains, elevators, taxis, shops, etc, as currently advised by many health authorities. 

Written by Andrew Byrne, Redfern Addictions Physician.  Usual email ajbyrne@ozemail.com.au


* Gandhi M, Beyrer C, Goosby E. Masks Do More Than Protect Others During COVID-19: Reducing the Inoculum of SARS-CoV-2 to Protect the Wearer. 2020 Journal of General Internal Medicine.   


One More Reason to Wear a Mask: You’ll Get Less Sick From COVID-19. News Summary from UCSF.                    



Chronology of COVID-19 Cases on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship and Ethical Considerations: A Report From Japan.


COVID-19: in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton.


Surgical Mask Partition Reduces the Risk of Noncontact Transmission in a Golden Syrian Hamster Model for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)


29 June 2020

Historical paper on the development of opiate maintenance and links with AA.

'ALCOHOLISM' Clinical and Experimental Research Vol 15/No 5 Sept/Oct 1991

EDITORIAL Addiction as a Public Health Problem: Vincent P. Dole

WHEN I FIRST became involved in studies of addiction 30 years ago, a society dedicated to this topic would have had no place in organized medicine. The subject was not even considered in the curricula of medical schools. Back then we assumed that addiction simply was a sign of psychopathology. Drug abuse and alcoholism were regarded as shameful dependencies on chemical substances, used for illicit gratification and escape from reality. If the subject came up in discussion, a typical physician would say that addicts were morally weak: they needed discipline, not medical treatment and certainly not a medically prescribed drug. This negative attitude still has considerable force today in medical and political circles.

Times are changing, however. The existence of this society bears witness to the official recognition of addicts as sick persons, deserving serious study and medical treatment, when appropriate. I have seen some of the changes that have led us to this point and have had the privilege of learning from persons who are now legends. Let me describe these experiences.

In 1960 I was a laboratory-based investigator at Rockefeller University-busy in specialized work and insulated from the real world. I commuted to New York from a comfortable house with a big lawn and view of the water in Rye, New York. I worked during the day in a laboratory on the University campus, and returned home in the evening, usually reading and editing journal papers in transit. Sometimes I looked out of the window. Occasionally, to save time in the morning, I left the train at the 125th Street Harlem Station and continued the trip to my laboratory on the elevated Third Avenue trolley (now gone). Walking the short distance between stations on 125th Street and then travelling 60 blocks on the elevated trolley-in effect a moving aerial platform-I saw drugs being sold on the sidewalks, drunks sleeping in doorways, young men idling on corners, young women apparently available at a price, shabby buildings, and busy bars.

Of course I had been aware of social problems in the inner city. Then, as now, the media were filled with reports of gang wars, murders, rape, arson, drug abuse, police raids, etc. But being in the neighborhood made the problems real. Society was disintegrating in my own city, not in another world. Something very bad had happened to people in what not long ago had been decent neighborhoods. The community was sick. What should be done?

In the basic sense of the term, this was a public health problem. Young people had grown up in disorder, without adequate education or employment, and many were now addicted to alcohol and drugs. Streets were littered. Buildings had deteriorated. Successful persons had left the area. Drug abuse had made the victims of the process the vectors of further spread. Treatment would have to go beyond hiring more police. By analogy with epidemics of infectious disease, critical interventions were needed to halt transmission of drug abuse without adding to the damage, and do this with limited resources. In public health terms, where were the feasible points of attack on the epidemic of drug abuse?

Obviously, this would be more complicated than dealing with an epidemic of infectious disease, but it seemed reasonable to hope that a comprehensive public health approach could succeed, if backed by consistent political support. Large scale effective treatment programs were needed for persons already addicted, coupled with rational measures for prevention of new cases. However, it soon became apparent that this was too much to expect. A profound disruption of society, then as now, fragments a community into special-interest groups opposing each other. Elected officials become powerless to resist vocal minorities, or to institute needed reforms. And the medical profession, which should have provided leadership, was uninvolved.

Conversations with experts over the next several months showed confusion at all levels, from the technical details of treatment to the feasibility of social rehabilitation. However, by then I had become too deeply concerned with the problem to quit. At least I could examine one detail of the problem, namely the pharmacology of heroin addiction, to see if an effective large-scale treatment could be developed. Having no experience in the field, I needed help.

The event that changed my life was finding Marie Nyswander. I had read her book entitled “The Drug Addict as a Patient”, and it made sense. Moreover, I heard that she was the only doctor in New York who was willing to treat drug addicts outside of an institution. Other doctors were uninterested, or feared harassment by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. I invited her to lunch at Rockefeller, expecting to meet a formidable lady.

To my surprise the lady who arrived was a gentle person, vibrantly alert but small in stature, soft spoken, shy in manner. What I remember most vividly about our first meeting is how tired she looked. Later I learned why. She was supporting herself as a practicing psychiatrist on Park Avenue while also counseling addicts in Spanish Harlem and fending off the bullies of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. At that time even psychiatric treatment of addicts without prescription of any medication (she had surrendered her narcotic license to avoid entrapment) was considered suspicious by the Bureau. Nevertheless she persisted. Although she had had little long-term success in treating heroin users with psychotherapy, psychoanalysis (she was also a certified analyst), group therapy, and social services, she was determined to continue her work and find a better treatment. On the positive side, she had found the addicts to be cooperative patients who were desperately in need of help. What had sustained her during a decade of lonely struggle was a sense of injustice-sick people asking for help and being rejected-and the gratitude of the patients even when her efforts failed. She expressed the conviction that narcotic addiction is basically a medical problem, an organic disease needing an effective medicine to abolish the pathological craving for narcotic drugs before social and psychological help could be effective on a large scale. Coming from an experienced psychiatrist who had been trained at the Federal Treatment Center in Lexington, Ky, and subsequently had devoted 10 years of her life to the problem, this was persuasive. I invited her to join me in setting up a physiological study of heroin addicts in Rockefeller Hospital. She accepted. Three years later we were married and remained inseparable companions until her death from cancer 5 years ago.

During the first year of this work we had the good fortune to recruit a talented young clinician, Dr. Mary Jeanne Kreek, to participate in the testing program. We started where previous studies had stopped. Research on narcotic pharmacology in the Public Health Hospital (Lexington, Ky), although carefully conducted, had been incomplete. Short-term, toxic, and analgesic effects of various narcotic drugs had been well documented, but long-term behavioral pharmacology (which for narcotic drugs is quite different from the acute effects because of the development of tolerance and physical dependence) had not been adequately studied outside of a prison environment. In particular, the possibility of using a narcotic drug for maintenance of intractable addicts had been dismissed because earlier attempts to maintain addicts with morphine had failed. Knowing that the term “narcotic” comprises a wide range of drugs with significantly different properties, we decided to look further, testing other pharmacological agents in the narcotic category on addicted volunteers.

To our surprise we found that one of the tested drugs, methadone (but not any of several other narcotics that we tested), had a normalizing, rather than narcotic, effect on long-term administration at a constant dose. This paradoxical finding of a narcotic drug having a normalizing effect was not understood until some years later when the pharmacokinetic studies of Dr. Kreek showed that the blood level of methadone is stabilized by first pass removal of about 98% of an oral dose, thus in effect creating a slow-release depot. As the circulating drug is removed from blood by metabolism, it is replaced by dissociation of molecules absorbed in the depot. The nervous system adapts to the steady level of methadone in the blood, thus abolishing its depressant effects. The medication thereafter acts as a normal neuromodulator, apparently substituting for dysfunctional components. Repeated testing by many independent observers during the past 25 years has verified this functional normalization. A patient who is stabilized on an adequate, constant daily dose of methadone is alert, healthy, and responds normally to painful stimuli.

That is enough to say about the pharmacology of methadone in the present discussion, but before leaving the topic I must acknowledge the essential contributions made by many hundreds of dedicated physicians, counsellors, nurses, social workers, administrators, lawyers, volunteers, and ex-addicts who in their collective efforts translated a research finding into a treatment program. The original team deserves special recognition: Physicians: Drs. Joyce Lowinson, Robert Newman, Robert Millman, Elizabeth Khuri, Harold Trigg; Administrators: Ray Trussell and Detlev Bronk; Lawyer: Dona1 O’Brien; numerous ex-addicts who will remain anonymous; and the indispensable Herman Joseph, who is too versatile to characterize and too important to omit from this list.

Now to the second topic, alcoholism. In the early 1960’s I was honored (and puzzled) by an invitation to join the Board of Alcoholics Anonymous as a Class A (nonalcoholic) trustee. Under the Constitution of AA only seven nonalcoholic persons could occupy this position, while several hundred thousand regular members of AA had entered the Fellowship the hard way, by being alcoholics. I was afraid that they might have made a mistake, and so before accepting the position, I discussed my research with executives of the Fellowship and raised the question as to whether this appointment might involve a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one. Would it embarrass the Fellowship to have an investigator of chemotherapy for narcotic addiction included in the Board of AA? They insisted that they saw no problem since the objectives were parallel-namely providing the best treatment available to sick persons. They also pointed to AA’s Fifth Tradition, which states that the mission of AA is solely to help alcoholics, and firmly rules against taking a position on other issues. They were right. There never has been a problem in my association with AA, and my admiration for Bill Wilson and the dedicated AA members that I came to know has increased over the years.

Needless to say, I have gained far more from AA than the Fellowship did from me. It was my privilege to witness the healing force of personal service, group support and humility, while my only serious responsibility was to serve on a few committees and be an alert observer. As an organization, AA is the purest form of democracy. Major questions are submitted to the membership at the annual meetings of delegates representing all groups. Ultimately, questions of policy are resolved in a statement of the Group Conscience. The headquarters of AA, the General Services Office, is just what the name states. The secret of AA’s strength is service. It is a secret that certainly should be shared with the medical profession.

Throughout most of my time on the Board I continued to be puzzled by the original question: Why had I, specifically, been invited to serve? If a physician experienced in treatment of alcoholics had been needed for professional opinion, there were many persons with better qualifications than I. If an administrative advisor was sought, I would be near the bottom of any search list. My only qualification was caring. One answer gradually became clear: In the early years of AA Bill and the original trustees were acutely sensitive to the danger of the Fellowship being distorted by aggressive persons with dogmatic opinions. During my time on the Board, I never detected any sign of this happening, but perhaps that simply reflected the success of the Traditions in the mature organization, keeping the Fellowship on track. Anyway, I assumed that I had been brought in as sort of a smoke alarm, a canary in the mine.

A more specific answer, however, emerged in the late 1960s, not long before Bill’s death. At the last trustee meeting that we both attended, he spoke to me of his deep concern for the alcoholics who are not reached by AA, and for those who enter and drop out and never return. Always the good shepherd, he was thinking about the many sheep who are lost in the dark world of alcoholism. He suggested that in my future research 1 should look for an analogue of methadone, a medicine that would relieve the alcoholic’s sometimes irresistible craving and enable him to continue his progress in AA toward social and emotional recovery, following the Twelve Steps. I was moved by his concern, and in fact subsequently undertook such a study.

Until its closure this year, my laboratory sought an analogue of alcoholism in mice so as to be able to test potential medicines that could benefit human alcoholics. We failed in this, but the work is only begun. Talented investigators in other laboratories are working on various aspects of the analogue problem. With the rapid advance in neurosciences, I believe that Bill’s vision of adjunctive chemotherapy for alcoholics will be realized in the coming decade.

Now let me describe a coincidence that linked my work with Bill’s in an unexpected way, and perhaps explains my reaction to the scenes on the 125th Street 30 years ago. In Bill’s biography, he recalls a time in the winter of 1940 when the future of AA looked bleak. There was no activity in the newly opened club on 24th Street, and he was resting upstairs. Someone called up that a bum had come in, asking for Bill. Stumping up the steps was a stooped man with a cane who identified himself as a Jesuit priest. He said that he had come to meet Bill because of his admiration for the Twelve Steps. They were, he said, remarkably similar to the precepts of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of his religious order. As Bill’s biographer put it, “thus began a conversation that lasted 20 years.”

My association with AA came much later, but my contact with Edward Dowling, the priest in this story, antedated Bill’s meeting with him by 15 years. He was my classroom teacher in first year high school at Loyola Academy in Chicago in the mid 1920’s. At that time he was a slim and vigorous young novitiate with jet black Irish hair and an intense manner. Among other subjects he discussed ethical conduct, not as an abstract thesis, but as a practical obligation toward others, and as a service that brings its own reward.

In his subsequent busy career as a priest Father Dowling lived what he had taught, friend and advisor to people in trouble, to young families, to students, to alcoholics. I saw him only infrequently in later years, but remember most clearly the contrast between his continued intellectual force and his deteriorating health. Medically, he had severe rheumatoid spondylitis. He became progressively more stooped, white haired, limited in travel. Yet he did not even seem to be aware of his disability. He was too occupied with the problems of others.

Marie Nyswander, Bill Wilson, and Edward Dowling are no longer with us, but their inspiration remains. For each, life was a continuing Twelve Step. They cared for people who suffered and especially those with the double jeopardy of being sick and being rejected. They left a positive record of success in dealing with these problems.

It is my privilege, as their student, to greet the Society for Addiction Medicine, and transmit the expectations that they surely would have had for its future. They would have welcomed the strength and scientific discipline that you bring to the field. They would expect you to study and debate the technical details of treatment while being united in compassion for addicts. They would look to you for leadership that rises above special interests and prejudice. They would hope that you could lead the way to rational measures of prevention, and a variety of effective, nonpunitive treatments for various addictions. Certainly they would expect you to be concerned with the enormous public health problem of addiction: tens of thousands of drug addicts and hundreds of thousands of alcoholics who still remain untreated. It would be their fervent hope that you succeed.

From The Rockefeller University, New York, New York. Receivedfor publication May 8, 1991; accepted May 24. 1991 The Distinguished Science Lecture presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, Boston, MA, April 19, 1991. Reprint requests: Vincent P. Dole, The Rockefeller University. I230 York Avenue, New York, NY 10021-6399. Copyright 0 I991 by The Research Society on Alcoholism. Alcohol Clin E.xp Re.\. Vol 15, No 5. 199 I; pp 749-752

2 February 2020

Fentanyl manufacturer and top executives jailed for unlawful marketing.

Fentanyl manufacturer and top executives jailed for unlawful marketing. Financial Times 24 January 2020

John Kapoor, who founded Insys Therapeutics, was sentenced to 5½ years in prison for Big Pharma crimes including the marketing of fentanyl, a product only approved in the USA for cancer break-through pain.  See news item on https://www.ft.com/content/a27bbc80-3d35-11ea-a01a-bae547046735

 “Opioid executive admits to ‘no morals’ ahead of prison term”

‘US pharmaceutical executives have been put on notice that they could be held criminally liable for fuelling America’s epidemic of opioid addiction, after the founder of the drugmaker Insys was sentenced on Thursday to five-and-a-half years in prison for masterminding a scheme to bribe doctors to prescribe a dangerous painkiller.’

Despite causing great satisfaction in some quarters, such prosecutions are unlikely to make much difference to opioid deaths currently.  In America, where addiction to prohibition is endemic, opioid use has now moved from prescription drugs back to the black market where we know regulation has no effect on price and little effect on availability. 

Comment by Andrew Byrne .. any replies best to ajbyrne@ozemail.com.au

Along the same line, relating to Mundipharma in Australia: Wall St Journal article.
“OxyContin Made The Sacklers Rich. Now It’s Tearing Them Apart.” https://www.wsj.com/articles/oxycontin-made-the-sacklers-rich-now-its-tearing-them-apart-11562990475  

And further: alleged actions denying life-saving buprenorphine treatment by hiking costs to patients and insurers. 
“Federal prosecutors said that starting in 2010, Indivior falsely marketed its film as being safer and less prone to abuse than cheaper tablet forms, illegally earning billions of dollars in a "nationwide scheme" to bill healthcare providers and insurers including Medicaid.”

26 December 2018

Christmas 'post-card' from Andrew Byrne in Redfern ...

Accreditation albatross; Honour role; ‘Ice’ age; Successful OTP patients; Hep C; rat research using cannabinoids and amphetamine. 

Dear friends, neighbours and colleagues,

It has been a mixed year, but we seem to have survived more-or-less intact at the surgery in Redfern.  Accreditation has been the great bug-bear and I believe it is high time for health professions to reject what masquerades as a motherhood safety net but which I firmly believe is strangling health care in Australia.   More of that later. 

It has been my privilege on annual trips to New York City to meet top people in our field, some of whom have become close friends.  These soldiers, saints and scholars include Vincent P. Dole (RIP), Don Des Jarlais, Charles O’Brien, Joyce Lowinson, Ethan Nadelmann, Herman Joseph, Ernie Drucker, Mary-Jeanne Kreek, Jerome Jaffe and Herb Kleber (RIP).  But none was as close to sainthood as Dr Robert G. Newman who died this year after a car accident in The Bronx.  His loss will be felt in many countries where he advocated for opiate maintenance treatment, harm reduction and ethical medical treatment for drug addiction in parallel with other medical conditions.  Sympathies to his wife Seiko and their children on their huge loss.  And ours. 

It has been a challenging year but with many rewards as we watch our patients achieve their goals, major and minor.  As I approach retiring age I can provide more customised treatment for those with opiate, benzodiazepine and alcohol problems.  Specifically we use split doses, high doses, low doses, frequent swaps between methadone and buprenorphine along with adjuvant therapy using anti-depressants, mood stabilisers, disulfiram, fluvoxamine, propranalol and propantheline.  Yet we are frustrated on a daily basis by the use of ‘crystal’ methamphetamine ('ice').  Previously stable, pleasant methadone maintenance patients have become unpredictable and unreasonable.  There have been frequent admissions to psychiatric wards where nothing much can be done after assessment and possibly antipsychotic medication.  We have tried prescribing dexamphetamine for some consenting trial cases but without success at eliminating the use of ‘ice’ (methamphetamine), even for short periods.  We await a positive strategy, perhaps from one of the younger members of the addiction Chapter (RACP). 

We continue to address the widespread use of benzodiazepine tranquillizers in our patient population (18-50% dependency among OTP patients according to AATOD).  We have started performing differential urine toxicology which can determine the diazepam-temazepam-oxazepam group from the more potent and dangerous alprazolam, clonazepam and flunitrazepam preparations.  We supervise detoxifying doses in new or unstable patients with some receiving ‘staged supply’ dispensing of diazepam for limited periods for anxiety and/or dependency using either 2mg or 5mg tablets.  The supply of diazepam is contingent on the usual stability criteria for take-home doses of methadone or buprenorphine (sober presentation, housing, vocation, family, finances, attendance, psychiatric, toxicology, etc).  ‘Doctor shopper’ information is now available on line.  More will be said on these matters following a seminar at Sydney University (RPAH) in November by Prof Starcevic, Prof Haber and a brief appearance by myself, chaired by Dr Richard Hallinan of our practice. 

We have also had numerous patients leave opiate maintenance successfully in the past 12 months with many others achieving vocational, family and other goals, far from uncontrolled illicit drug or alcohol use.  A fork-lift licence, university degree, new baby, paid off debts, smoking cessation and new housing can all be life changing benefits for those involved.   For others such goals are still at some distance. 

The new oral treatments for hepatitis C have allowed us to almost eradicate the disease from our patient group after sometimes frustrating times with interferon-based treatments in the past.  This has been enormously gratifying for patients, their families and our staff as a very positive outcome.  Congratulations are due to Dr Hallinan for most of this important public health work which is subject of continuing publications. 

My niece Gracie Hay has spent a couple of sessions in the practice after completing her psychology honours year at Macquarie University.  She has published a fascinating paper on her work with Professor Cornish using cannabinoids to diminish behavioural symptoms of withdrawal and relapse in amphetamine-primed rats (see citation below).  Gracie is now a medical student at Notre Dame University and has some busy years ahead of her.  [Hay GL, Baracz SJ, Everett NA, Roberts J, Costa PA, Arnold JC, McGregor IS, Cornish JL. Cannabidiol treatment reduces the motivation to self-administer methamphetamine and methamphetamine-primed relapse in rats. Journal of Psychopharmacology 2018 1 –10. Link below to free publication on-line] 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all from the Byrne Surgery staff, hoping 2019 is a good one for all.

Andrew Byrne ..

13 June 2018

Portuguese drug policy changes save lives wholesale. Sydney meeting.

Big turn-out on rainy Sydney evening for drug law reform meeting.  Tuesday 5th June 2018. St Stephen’s Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney.
“An evening with Manuel Cardoso the man who helped reform Portugal’s drug policy”. 
Take-home message to get through to our politicians: decriminalisation is now proven to save lives, money and much more. 
The most impressive part of this evening was actually the audience, all like me, frustrated supporters of drug law reform, some for up to 40 years.  And I estimate that there were over 1000 in attendance on a cold wet winter evening.  An email blitz had offered a free umbrella for the first 250 to attend. 
The evening consisted of a fireside chat type presentation – no power-point slides, etc.  Will Tregoning PhD was a whippy and knowledgeable compere with his three guests on a couch up front with microphones and cameras for live-stream on FaceBook.  
Dr Manuel Cardoso said that he was an optimist and did not recall anything bad, just the good.  So when people asked what were the triggers for the move to decriminalization in 2001 in his country he said he could not recall that far back.  His CV seems to indicate that he was not involved in the drug field in 2001 so the title of the evening’s talk seems a little odd.  He explained that he was the deputy and was modest about the dramatic changes in his country following decriminalisation. 
Other information indicates very serious drug-related events in his country with some of the worst stats in Europe for a number of major outcomes such as overdose deaths, HIV transmission, incarceration, etc.  Also the economy was in the doldrums.  I understand that there was a coming together of three great minds being a politician, a radio host and a law professor.  And an opposition in parliament which was also on-side or at least on the same page, partly due to so many overdose deaths, some children of prominent citizens.  The entire story is carefully described in an excellent report by the CATO Institute (G. Greenwald, 2009) as quoted by one speaker (see links below). 
Dr Cardoso was also giving talks in Hong Kong, Argentina, Luxembourg, Norway and elsewhere on this trip, seemingly in great demand.  We were told that only Norway is in any political place to introduce decriminalisation, in great distinction from Sweden which has long had a zero tolerance approach despite their poor outcomes of drug related morbidities in such an environment.  Only America has a worse system and even the current unprecedented overdose crisis seems unable to move the prohibition monster. 
During the talk I realised that decriminalization brings out those who really DO have problems with drugs as distinct from those who like using their drugs, finding they can get on with their lives, work, raise families, pay tax, etc without problems.  This became clear as Dr Cardoso was talking about alcohol which some people use quite seriously but without apparent harm while others get into trouble with excess use and serious social/medical consequences.  This latter group needs help in numerous ways, just like others with disabilities or illness.  Indeed, the evening has taught me to be more tolerant of illicit drug use in my methadone patients when it is clearly low-risk and in some cases may even be quasi-therapeutic. 
Three of the best comments of the night came from the floor after the main interviews were over.  Marion Mc’Connell who co-founded Family and Friends for Drug Law Reform spoke about her frustration at seeing so little progress since the death of her son over 20 years ago.  This was then reflected by Rev Bill Crewes who dated his first meeting on the subject to the 1970s.  He also mourned the lack of serious moves away from the failed policies of prohibition and harm maximization.  Then an articulate young lady introduced herself as the new Labor candidate for Balmain in State Parliament, saying much work needed to be done by and within political parties.  She promised to push the issue as best she could but added that politicians can only act when they know what their constituents want and/or what expert opinion is suggesting.  Why are we still locking up drug users? 
This latter was taken up by ex-Premier Geoff Gallop whose government in WA virtually decriminalised cannabis.  He pointed out that two factors were crucial to successful change: bipartisan support as well as public forums with expert evidence pointing to a need for change.  Even some of his own (Labor) government’s easing of cannabis restrictions in WA were rolled back by a subsequent (Liberal coalition) government. 
Dr Marianne Jauncey spoke briefly about her experience as director of the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross.  This is the only place in Australia where it is legal to possess illicit drugs.  Despite its success clinically over 17 years (no deaths after up to a million injecting episodes) and public acceptance, it has not been duplicated by the NSW Health Department, which is regrettable.  After numerous false starts it appears that Melbourne may soon have an injecting centre. 
Others had particular questions for Dr Cardoso about the situation in Portugal and how that might be relevant to other jurisdictions.  His answers while direct were generic.  I asked him if there were any moves in Portugal to return to old policies such as from the Catholic Church, older citizens or conservative forces.  He replied that he knew of no such moves and would be surprised if there were any.  The Church, he said, was wholly supportive.  It seems that the benefits have been so widespread and so obvious that the entire population, not just drug users, can see the benefits.  There may be similarities to the lifting of alcohol prohibitions in America 90 years ago. 
There was a great deal of camaraderie in the foyers afterward with nice mingling over savouries and drinks with many old colleagues, some I had not seen for ages.  It was also nice to see a younger generation of health professionals, advocates, researchers, etc in attendance at such a gathering. 
My summation of the event was that there is a groundswell of keen support for total decriminalisation of personal drug use and that the Portuguese experience was one of the largest social experiments of our time … and every indication is that it has proven beyond any doubt that prohibition has failed and removing it along with increasing access to treatment and harm reduction is successful.  This ‘experiment’ (my colleagues say I should not call it an experiment) was so large and so successful in a country with many similarities to our own that it places our system of prohibitions of drugs as being out-dated, counter-productive, wasteful and inhumane. 
If everyone at this meeting made an appointment to see their local member of parliament with their views we may see the start of something big.  It took the ‘Mothers of America’ to start the moves against prohibition in that country … maybe we need a similar movement here.  The rationale is compelling … and in America with the overdose crisis the case is overwhelming. 
Written by Andrew Byrne, Redfern Addiction Physician. 
References: Greenwald G. Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies. Cato Institute. 2009  https://www.cato.org/publications/white-paper/drug-decriminalization-portugal-lessons-creating-fair-successful-drug-policies

13 May 2018

Dr Kandel on memory loss in the elderly.

April 12 2018
The Eric Simon Lecture in Basic & Translational Neuroscience
Eric R. Kandel, MD
University Professor and Fred Kavli Professor
Department of Neuroscience
Columbia University
Senior Investigator
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Smilow Seminar Room
I had been invited by Addiction Textbook editor Dr Joyce Lowinson to a talk by Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel on memory loss in the elderly.  His Nobel Prize in 2002 was for work on snails and the laying down of short and long term memory in brain cells.  I sat in the front row next to a doctor from Bellevue Hospital where some of the rat experiments quoted by Prof Kandel had been done.  The speaker was introduced by Dr Eric Simon who was honoured by this annual address and who was the first to name endogenous endorphins in the human brain.
The initial point of the talk was to emphasise the important differences between Alzheimer’s disease and ‘benign senescent memory loss’.  The latter had first been described (allegedly) by a member of the audience and is a well known syndrome.  A side point was made that despite modern publications needing 20 or more pages plus appendices, Crick and Watson’s paper reporting the double helix was only 3 pages long.  And Sigmund Freud wrote some critical papers of a similar length.  Dr Kandel reported being at James Watson’s 90th birthday the week before.  We were indeed in the presence of greatness!  I might add that Dr McBride’s report of thalidomide consequences was less than half a page in Lancet.   
The most important message of the talk was that rodent experiments had confirmed the difference between modest memory loss due to age and Alzheimer’s Disease with amyloid build-ups, tangles and other typical pathological findings which can be induced in rats.  Dr Kandel’s main finding was that high levels of ‘osteocalcin’ were associated with benefits in retaining memory functions, even into old age (which for rats is 18 to 24 months).  It seems that this hormone is produced in osteoclasts mostly in bone but also in the circulating blood stream.  He also described on a specific haplotype which was apparently associated with low level of osteocalcin and a propensity to significant memory less. 
Over the past five years of research Dr Kandel found that the best way to elevate osteocalcin levels is to exercise to the level of walking about 3 kilometres every day (for a human – most of his experiments so far have been with rats).  There are numerous other benefits of walking for the heart, blood pressure, stress levels, etc, etc. 
There was a wide ranging and lively Q&A session after the presentation. An audience member asked if swimming was as good as walking but we were told that since one is weightless it is probably less effective on the bones producing osteocalcin … also, “one could drown” (a comic interjection from an Israeli colleague in the audience – to which the speaker quipped “you Israelis are always worried about existential threats”).  I asked Dr Kandel if taking exogenous osteocalcin would do the same as exercise.  Some enterprising audience members had already searched for supplies and found some company allegedly selling the chemical already!  This remains to be trialled, it appears. 
My neighbour from Bellevue had done some rat trials and told me quietly that their rats were very keen on exercise, running on their treadmills for hours on end, thus improving their experimental memory scores into ‘old age’ (>18 months for rats).  I wanted to ask whether they were in small cages or ‘rat-park’ enclosures as per Bruce Alexander’s work in Canada but time ran out and I may never know. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. visiting addictions physician from Sydney, Australia. 

Summary in brief in talk by Dr Kandel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X15zFT7jyh4
Also brilliant TED talk on neuroscience approach to portraiture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jyc7FIglkHI


8 May 2018

Medical Postcard from New York: overdose crisis summary from NYU.

Dear Colleagues,
During a recent New York visit I had numerous encounters in the medical, public health and dependency fields.  The opioid overdose crisis dominates conversation, media and even the White House has been involved.  Below is a summary of one key lecture I attended followed by some other events which may be of interest. 
Regards from Andrew Byrne .. now back in Sydney, Australia. 
April 19 2018         Stephen Ross, MD
The Opioid Epidemic: How We Got Here and How Do We Fix the Problem?” Associate Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Senior Director, Division of Substance Abuse, Bellevue Hospital. Director, Addiction Psychiatry, Tisch Hospital, NYU.
This was an action-packed talk filled with a vast quantity of detail but with the overall ‘messages’ carefully enunciated by Dr Ross who was introduced by department Chair with a string of accolades from early life in Johannesburg, South Africa to medical school in the US, psychiatry training, teaching awards, research publications and more.  Dr Ross has also authored some interested papers on the therapeutic possibilities of hallucinogens in patients with serious medical disease. 
We were told about the epidemics of opioid use starting early in the 19th century when opium, laudanum and paragoric became very popular.  A series of advertisements for these products while cute and dated also had their same ring of snake oil tactics still used by today’s drug companies who he repeatedly blamed, at least in part, for much of the current problems in America.  Dr Ross reminded us that the lessons of history should be heeded right now since overdose problems have happened in several surges of opiate popularity over the 20th century and the circumstances can almost be predicted, or should have been. 
The present epidemic seems to have started after an air of confidence in medically prescribed opioids with a low risk of addiction.  These were started by two brief communications published as letter to the editor, one from Russell Portenoy and colleagues in NYC Sloane Kettering.  Both brief letters which Dr Ross showed on the screen pointed out the low rate of dependency they found following medical prescription of opioids for pain.  Neither was a RCT nor even a prospective study and yet they were given a significance well beyond their actual scientific value by some well meaning doctors and avaricious drug companies.  Dr Ross also pointed out that prescribing by experienced pain management teams with multi-disciplinary measures is very different from a dentist or ‘orthopedist’ writing up a month of opioid pain killers for post operative cases as some do routinely to this day (we were given examples). 
I read elsewhere that about 15 years ago the Joint Commission for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) had required reporting of pain in therapeutic outcomes after numerous parties had pushed a well meaning but fundamentally flawed and dishonest campaign of : “Pain as the Fifth Vital Sign” (after pulse, temp, BP and respirations).  Of course pain is a symptom and not a sign at all yet for marketing purposes this was highly effective.  And furthermore there was very limited evidence that opioids were effective for chronic non-cancer pain. 
Dr Ross divided the recent overdose epidemic into three parts starting in about 2001: (1) prescribed opioids, (2) heroin then (3) fentanyl additives.  The last has been the most deadly as his graph showing yearly deaths had three lines of increasing slope, ending at the terrible annual toll of 60,000 for ~2016/7.  It seems that there is general agreement that aggressive marketing and lax regulations from 2002 to about 2009 led to the initial dramatic increase in opiate problems in America based on the assertions (1) that addiction rarely follows medical prescription and (2) the claim that chronic pain was widely undertreated.  Opponents at the time were accused of ‘opiophobia’ (Dr Ross quipped that this would become a new DSM diagnostic category!). 
The predictable and protracted reaction against this over-prescribing by the states was to restrict opiate prescription in numerous ways: triplicate prescription requirements, limited quantities, and refills, reduced insurance rebates, and (supposedly) less abusable formulations.  These knee-jerk restrictions caused many who were unwittingly addicted to move to illicit heroin which flooded the market from Mexico.  Only a very small proportion could take advantage of addiction treatments due to high cost as well as limited availability in many areas, thus there was a second wave of drug use and consequent deaths. 
Then we were told about a third and most worrying phase of the overdose crisis being the unprecedented increase in deaths in the past 3 years which has been associated with replacement with and contamination by some of the opiates using fentanyl and carfentanil, mostly manufactured in China.  Because these drugs are hundreds to thousands of times more potent than heroin they can be imported in small packets undetected.  Also we were told that innovations of the dark web, bitcoin and ‘pill presses’ have added further to the difficulties.  Two pills which look identical may have vastly different potencies. 
Dr Ross was extremely critical of drug regulation authorities, criminal justice, customs, drug companies, medical insurers, medical schools and health practitioners all of whom he said had played a role in the current disaster which leads to an overdose death every 12 minutes in America.  The number of deaths has now exceeded all casualties of war including both world wars for the US.  The annual death rate has topped cancer, suicide, road deaths and is now the leading cause of death in 20-50 year age group (I think I got that right).  We were shown age at death tables to show that this is affecting all age groups but that younger people are now involved.  The number of drug overdose deaths in the USA was estimated to have been over 60,000 per year by 2017.
Dr Ross put up a table of the types of practitioners most involved in the current prescribing and I was surprised to see the orthopaedic surgeons and dentists were high on the list along with family physicians, psychiatrists, gastroenterologists, etc. 
It appears that many minor procedures such as arthroscopy are routinely prescriber 30 or even 90 days of opiate pain killers and that there is a significant financial incentive to do so under some payment ‘plans’.  In my discussions during my time in New York I heard of a 15 year old boy who returned to school after a knee arthroscopy as a day procedure with a bottle of 90 Vicodin tablets (containing paracetamol plus hydrocodone).  I saw a TV interview with a mother who had found both of her late-teenage sons dead after a family celebration.  It was chokingly tragic but is being repeated all over the country every single day. 
Naloxone programs were mentioned and commended briefly but the obvious fact that they are of no assistance when the overdose victim is alone. 

Dr Ross alluded briefly to the Portuguese drug law reform implemented in 2001 which involved removal of all sanctions for persons found in possession of quantities of drugs (defined) consistent with only personal use.  He emphasised that drug dealers were still arrested but that there were no legal sanctions against drug users apart from being introduced to treatment services (de-addiction committees … which the subject could take-or-leave referrals to treatment services).  Funds saved in the criminal justice sector were put into treatment which had been substantially expanded and improved.  From having the worst statistics in Europe for consequences of drug use most improved year by year to be some of the most envious.  These included reduced overdose rates, HIV and Hep C transmission, crime, etc. 
Dr Ross pointed out that the most effective form of treatment for opiate dependence included Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) with buprenorphine and methadone. In the USA extended release injectable naltrexone is also included in MAT despite the small and largely unimpressive evidence for effectiveness, safety and cost effectiveness compared to methadone and buprenorphine.   While treatment availability in American cities is quite limited, in rural areas such services were often completely absent.  We were shown various colour-coded maps of the country showing the paucity of approved physicians for buprenorphine and even worse availability of methadone clinics (methadone is not available in American pharmacies unlike other western countries).  The ratios of drug users to treatment facilities were as unfortunate as they could be.  [see NY Times interactive map with opioid overdose rates for every county: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/22/upshot/opioid-deaths-are-spreading-rapidly-into-black-america.html ] The expansion and improvement of maintenance treatments is the most important part of the package of measures needed in the USA to reduce the number of opioid overdose deaths.
Unlike many Americans, our speaker was happy to mention prevention, treatment and harm reduction in the one breath.  The common reticence was partly due to a White House edict some years ago that any grant application which mentioned ‘harm reduction’ was to be refused.  This is despite its complete compatibility with good public health polices as first exemplified in the Broad Street Pump reports of cholera in London in the 19th century.  Some facetious comments even refer to inappropriate interventions such a blanket prohibition as being ‘harm maximization’.  
There were a few Q&A’s at the end after a major applause showing the audience appreciation.  Prof Ernie Drucker brought up the issue of cannabis and mentioned that he had discussed with Lester Grinspoon about heroin users modulating their opioid use with cannabis products which may explain the lower overdose rates being reported in states which have legalised cannabis. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. visiting addictions physician from Sydney, Australia.  http://methadone-research.blogspot.com/
** Lecture by Dr Steve Ross on the opioid crisis and what to do about it (summary/link above). 
** Lecture by Nobel Laureate Dr Eric Kandel on memory loss in the elderly (exercise more!)
** Opening address at ASAM meeting at San Diego (seen on web-stream) by Dr Ellinore McCance-Katz, after a statistical run-down and promise of research funding, then started to sound more political than like the caring physician I know her to be.  Second speaker was Michael Charness, Boston VA, on alcohol interventions in 50 years time.  Surprisingly, popular singer Judy Collins had equal time in the third plenary (and sang her songs rather too often), giving her profound story of long-term sobriety and lessons for others. It was also in honour of Dr Stuart Gitlow who had been instrumental in Ms Collins' success.   
** Subsequent web-stream ASAM talks of interest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8IcJXdwKbE&feature=youtu.be
** Harm reduction still a long way to go in America.  American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). 

** New guidelines in US on prescribing for opiate maintenance TIP63 but there is still no “connect” between buprenorphine and methadone even though they should obviously be complimentary, both being licensed for opiate dependence.  Yet they are rarely if ever given in the same institution by the same staff thus transfers are complex and sometimes impossible.
** Meeting with Dr Mary Jeanne Kreek at Rockefeller University wide ranging discussions including high dose methadone and methadone for pain. 
** I gave a talk on optimising outcomes in opiate maintenance treatment at Columbia University (more info on request). 
** Meetings also with Dr Joyce Lowinson, Dr Robert G. Newman, Prof Ernie Drucker, Dr Herman Joseph, Dr Doug Kramer, Ethan Nadelmann and many others. 
** Recommended TED talk J. Hari: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY9DcIMGxMs “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong”.