CNN “Prescription Addiction” Town Hall reaction

Dear Anderson Cooper & CNN Your “Prescription Addiction” Town Hall was so disappointingly one-sided.

I am contacting you because as a former professor of Communication Arts, Writer and Filmmaker, I rely on CNN to be the network where “…the reporters, producers, editors and writers at CNN aim for comprehensive journalism. In their news coverage, they strive to present the whole story, fairly and completely, so that readers and viewers may come to their own conclusions. And in their presentation of opinion and analysis, they strive to represent a range of viewpoints…

Comprehensive journalism also means that we do not let our financial interests determine the topics we cover. Our reporters, producers, writers and editors cover issues that are newsworthy and of interest to our readers and viewers, not because an issue may be of interest to advertisers,” as Time Warner’s Statement of Journalistic Integrity claims that CNN does. As a long time chronic pain patient, patient advocate, pain writer/researcher, regular Columnist at Pain News Netowrk, and Delegate to International Pain Foundation, I am one of ONE HUNDRED MILLION pain patients whose voices are being completely left out of this narrative. Out of these 100 million, many of us need access to opioid pain medications in order to function on a daily basis. Not because we’re addicted, but because we have legitimate, ’round-the-clock treatment needs, for our moderate to severe pain.

I am contacted daily by patients who are absolutely desperate because they cannot obtain proper pain treatment, or because their meds have been so severely cut or completely withdrawn, because their doctors (even pain doctors) “Are afraid they’ll lose their licenses,” and they can no longer function. I am one of the many who need a level of morphine equivalent, which is much higher than the CDC’s “Recommended Daily Morphine Equivalent Dosage.” I and many of these patients (NOT addicts) see two options if we cannot get the necessary medications—seek relief in the form of street drugs, or commit suicide. It is that simple.

It is abundantly clear that the opioid witch-hunt is quickly snowballing into the new American genocide for those of us who rely on opioid pain medication to have any quality of life, whatsoever. I am not ignoring the problem this country has with addiction, but pain and addiction are two separate issues, and must be treated with two very separate approaches. I am not pushing opioids, just a patient’s right to utilize them to their fullest extent of effectiveness, and I’m an advocate of the doctor/patient decision-making process, over the governmental, media, and special anti-opioid interest groups deciding what patients’ treatment should or should not be.

As for the “recommended therapies,” exercise, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, etc., and the “Preferred treatments,” NSAIDs, Tylenol, Neurontin, etc. These are all things every one of us has tried, and wouldn’t need opioids if they worked as singular treatment. Most of us still use some of them…in conjunction with opioids. Because as almost any doctor will tell you, chronic pain is complicated, and best treated with a multi-modal approach. Without the opioids, we cannot get out of bed to do or take the adjunct therapies. There is some uncertainty as to the efficacy of opioids for long-term chronic non-cancer pain. However, there is absolutely no proof that they are ineffective, and if you ask any one of us who has been on them for a long time, and still take them, it’s because we NEED them, and they work for us. They make our lives a bearable place. Believe me when I say, NO ONE would go through the stigma, shame, and discrimination that we do if they didn’t have to.

Additionally, there IS plenty of research that shows many of these other medications to be far worse in side effects and long-term effects than opioids. Also, there is a distinct difference between addiction and dependence, and the media, government, and medical community has completely overlooked this essential difference in diagnosis. Dependence occurs with many medications which are prescribed prolifically, like SSRI’s, anticonvulsants (like Lyrica and Neurontin), even life-saving medications like insulin cause physical dependence. Chronic pain patients are shown to be highly unlikely to become addicted to opioids, and in fact do not experience the euphoria that addicts crave. They simply experience some degree of relief.

I have spoken out loudly and frequently–in articles I’ve written, comments I’ve made to the CDC, letters to government officials, and so on, only to continue to watch as my pain support system, my doctors, my government, my media all shut me out of my own critical life decisions. It is terrifying how quickly this non-epidemic (compared to other causes of death-Between 1999 and 2014 over 8,000,000 died from the use/abuse of Alcohol & Nicotine.. over 5,000,000 died from medical errors. 700,000 committed suicide…700,000 die from hospital & nursing home acquired MRSA & C-Dif. Almost 194,000 died from prescription drug overdoses) is consuming our culture, filling the minds of the many with the bullied bias against the few, while the pandemic of pain continues to eviscerate American citizens. This is the time for the media, especially CNN and Anderson Cooper to step in and be the voice for those who cannot compete with the multi-million dollar anti-opioid campaign that is taking away Americans’ basic human rights to “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

We have all read and heard statistic that “Over 16,000 people dying every year from opioid overdose.” This number has been hammered into our heads as the opioid “epidemic,” I read it quoted in a New York Times article just last week. Two things are ironically and consistently left out–This statistic is from 2011 (since then, the number has gone down significantly) and, the CDC ADMITTEDLY SKEWED THE NUMBERS!

“The CDC study is based on a review of death certificates and didn’t sort out legitimate opioid prescriptions, illegal use of opioids, suicide, deaths caused by alcohol or other medications, or even if the death was truly from opioids and not from some other disease process. Did the patient die from lung cancer or opioid toxicity? Sometimes the latter is entered as the cause of death when it is not the case.”
A close reading of the CDC study also turns up something else. Other medications, particularly anti-depressants, sedatives, anti-anxiety and other mental health drugs, often were involved in the overdoses — not just opioids. To quote from the study: “Opioids were frequently implicated in overdose deaths involving other pharmaceuticals. They were involved in the majority of deaths involving benzodiazepines (77.2%), anti-epileptic and anti-parkinsonism drugs (65.5%), anti-psychotic and neuroleptic drugs (58%), anti-depressants (57.6%), other analgesics, anti-pyretics, and anti-rheumatics (56.5%), and other psychotropic drugs (54.2%).

Why do we never hear about an “epidemic” of deaths from anti-depressants or sedatives? Because in all of the deaths involving multiple drugs, only opioids are singled out as the cause of death. In a recent survey of pharmacists and drug wholesalers by the General Accounting Office (GAO), over half said DEA enforcement actions had limited their ability to supply drugs to legitimate patients. Many said they were fearful of being fined or having their licenses revoked. You won’t see that story being reported in The New York Times or Los Angeles Times because the CDC and DEA aren’t churning out press releases about it.” (

I urge you to read some of the articles that I and others have written on, which demonstrate true journalism, and provide you with information which could lead to the REAL reasons for this opioid hysteria–if you don’t already know. I encourage you to be the network that tells the WHOLE truth, and shows Americans all sides of this story. It has truly become a Civil Rights Issue, which deserves your attention.

According to the Journal of American Society of Anesthesiology, “the unreasonable failure to treat pain is poor medicine, unethical practice, and is an abrogation of a fundamental human right.” So, please endorse the chronic pain community by loudly and clearly speaking out against the invalidation of people with pain, illness, and disability, and help us stop this genocide against the vulnerable members of our society. I am not asking you to “endorse opioids,” just to tell the story of the millions who suffer already, and are being further stigmatized and marginalized.

Emily Ullrich
International Pain Foundation

5 thoughts on “CNN “Prescription Addiction” Town Hall reaction

  1. Oh wow Emily, I hope it is ok to call you that, I am so impressed with your letter. I have been, in between bouts of pain and blood cancer related fatigue, looking for the statistics that you referred to in your letter to CNN and Anderson Cooper. I just want to go yeah, what she said!! I know I have to do more than that, and I will. Like so many people writing about the stigmatization and unethical treatment of pain sufferers as addicts rather than medical patients, I have been through so many of these things over the years. I thought I had found an advocate for us in Dr. Dan Webster, only to find his recommendation for hugs for pain patients this holiday weekend. I was writing a response to him, but my hand froze up on the keypad and I lost all I had written. I went back to the site tonight and found your comment, searched for your name, and thankfully found this site. I know you are in Kentucky, I am in Florida, which has one of the worst histories of abuse of addicts and of pain patients in the country. I just wanted to say “thank you.” Since the CDC has decided prescription opiates are to be the new target of the war on drugs, and pharmaceutical companies have convinced many that suboxone and its related compounds are the new solution not just for addiction treatment but for pain (apparently on the basis of two studies), I have been alternating between fear and anger. I considered myself, is suicide an answer? Not for me. Can I sustain a fight to help pain patients, including myself? I really do not know.

    After years of emotional, physical, and spiritual health, I found myself in 2000 on an operating table and from then on trying to find, first a solution medically, surgically, psychologically, and then consistent opiate prescriptions without being made to feel like a drug seeking criminal. As you and others have said, I was placed on various prescriptions-all expensive, all with worse side effects than opiates, and none of which worked. Then I began breaking bones (I have severe osteoporosis), and had other multiple problems in addition to the birth defect that eventually took me to that operating table in 2000. Finally I began walking again-for the second time-and less than three months later was diagnosed with leukemia. The very chemotherapy used to treat the leukemia also caused additional chromosomal and genetic damage to the bone marrow which is supposed to produce red and white blood cells and platelets. All the damage caused by treatments that no one ever mentions can cause more cancer!! (Blood cancers can also be caused by some of the widely promoted chemicals proposed as alternatives to opiates: Lyrica for example). Don’t get me wrong, I would still have undergone chemotherapy if they had told me that it could cause another blood cancer. But I certainly would have refused Lyrica in the mid 2000s if I had known it was associated with lymphoma or blood cancers. How many people are going to be suffering from some other illness when everyone is forced onto the suboxone types medications, which have no long term studies on pain patients as opposed to addicts in treatment? Apparently, too many people have succumbed to the belief that everyone who has chronic pain and needs opiates and other treatments must also be addicts or, as the new term is used, has “opiate use disorder”. The distinction between abuse and dependence being eliminated, like the distinction between recreational use leading to addiction versus prescription use leading to habituation (tolerance), leaves the “public” with a belief that Opiate Use Kills. I remember the signs left over: Marijuana Kills. And now, people in many states believe that marijuana can help pain and have passed amendments to state constitutions to legalize medical marijuana??? So it seems the public does NOT want people to suffer from pain. Yet we are.

    Thank you!

  2. Patti,

    Thank you for sharing your story and for your support! I’m so sorry for what you’re going through, and I am so glad you found me! I hope that we can unite as a community, because they are counting on our inability to fight. The harder they make it (by taking away our meds) the smaller our voices get, because we are being physically defeated. To top it off, the rampant media sensationalism has our friends, family, government, and doctors turning against us! We are the vulnerable, but we are also 100 MILLION strong! We must make our voices heard and make a difference for ourselves, each other, our society, our medical care, and the world. Sending healing thoughts.

    • What do we do? What can I do? I’ve been suffering too long! I have chronic pancreatitis and feel like nobody wants or cares to help me! Er treats me as a drug seeker….so instead of putting up with the treatment I stay home and suffer! I truly feel like I have a form of PTSD! I feel helpless and stuck and do t know what to do. I am a 42 yr single mom…was a successful hairstylist able to work and function…some days not as good as others but for the most part was pretty good. Now my meds have been taken away I can no longer work and I can barely get out of bed most days. The pain is unbearable and lately I’m feeling like I’m losing hope! I totally lost who I was already and literally have no life! There are days I want to die! I don’t know how much more I can take. It’s not right. And it’s even worse to be made to feel like I am doing something wrong. I need relief. I need some sort of a normal life back. How do I get that?

  3. Melanie Jackson

    What angered me was when a woman stood to say how she has been on opiates for many years and it has helped her regain a reasonable quality if life, “Dr. Drew” responded that the people who are experiencing the improved lifestyle, are a “teeny” (he actually stuck out his pointer and thumb with a “teeny” space between) group compared to those who are abusers. The fact is the percentage of abusers is about 2% of all opiate users. It horrible that Dr Drew is adding to the frenzy and people believe him just because ‘Dr Drew couldn’t be wrong.” When Emily quotes the number of death by other means, and where is the uproar over those numbers, I add that where was the uproar when people in urban areas were dying by the thousand of heroin overdose, and only got attention when suburban kids started to flock to the city to cop. Where was the uproar when thousand of people were dying from the crack epidemic of the 80s.. The fact is the leading demographic of pain pill abusers are middle age caucasian men. I’m not calling race into this, but why is it suddenly in the forefront when other deaths never caused this kind of frenzy. Do you notice that in this articles the abuser is never held accountable for their addiction? What steps did they take to go left, when most users follow directions and don’t get into trouble? Only the “evil pill” and “death peddling doctors.” I don’t understand when they were given a few pills after surgery, and the first time they felt that “euphoria”, why didn’t they call their (mostly responsible) doctor immediately? If they experienced nausea or hives, they would have called the next morning. If the abuser doesn’t take responsibility for being culpable in their addiction, they will continue to get into trouble.

  4. Kimberly Carlisle

    Thank you for speaking up.
    I have chronic pain. I recently had shoulder surgery. Before surgery my surgeon prescribed me Percocet. My Pain Management Doctor had me tear up the prescription and prescribed me Vicoden 5/325. Norco. He told me they are as strong as Percocet. I was already taking 3 a day for my Fybromyalgia along with Cymbalta and Gabepentin. (A whole other story, I use to only take Norco and got the same results. ). He told me to cut down on my Norco before the surgery that was 4 days away or I would be in trouble. I take the bare minimum to reduce my pain now. The next day I had deep pocket cleaning on my gums. It made my gums, face, jaw and neck so sore a pain level 8. So I continued my 3 Norco and added one at 2:00 AM because it hurt so bad I woke up in so much stress thinking if this is not controlling my gum procedure what’s going to happen when I have shoulder surgery!? I got back in to see my Pain Doctor. I drove an hour in stop and go traffic once again water an hour in the waiting room in horrible pain. When I saw him and told him my concerns he scolded me saying ” We had a talk about cutting down before the surgery. Now your going to be in trouble.” I asked can I get a stronger dose, 10/325. He said ” No, I’m sorry we talked about this, sometimes we just have to suck it up!”
    I replied”are you kidding me? I’ve never asked in 3 years for more or stronger medication, I’m having surgery! I began to cry, I’m not an addict, why are you treating me like one? This is not right to deny me when I’m going to have a surgery.
    He gave in and wrote me the prescription.
    I drove an our towards home and the pharmacy, surgery was tomorrow morning. I was hurting so bad by now level 10. The traffic was insane.
    I gave the prescription to the pharmacist , they said I’m sorry you just got a prescription for 5/325 we can’t fill this.
    I again had to beg for stronger medicine for my surgery. I cried how unfair that drug abusers are taking away my rights to have proper pain medication so I don’t suffer after surgery. Look at my records I have not ever abused my prescriptions! He finally agreed to fill it
    I had the surgery. I can’t imaging how horrible it would have been without this medication.
    I had a follow up with the Drs assistant and he started talking to me about how I don’t want to end up dead from taking narcotics. He handed me a bottle to test my urine . I walked in the bathroom feeling shamed for having pain and needing medication. I had my right handed arm in a brace/sling and was wearing a skirt because I can’t unbutton pants. I couldn’t get my skirt out of the way to pee in the bottle. It ought about asking my husband for help. No it might look like he would pee for me. I don’t want to look like an addict. So I tried I got pee all over my hand. One hand to get to lit paper no counter to set the cup down. Hobble to the sink rinse my hand stifle to get my pants up, they are all twisted now.. I’m crying in frustration because it’s hurting my shoulder. I thought how horrible it is to be treated this way. They are treating me with no respect.
    I tried to pull myself together and while putting my specimen on the counter a nurse asked if I was ok?
    I said no and why. She took me to a very nice and understanding manager.
    My next visit was better.
    We should all be treated with understanding and compassion. Even the drug addicts on the street They need help, not hatred.

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