More than 1,000 people who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses converged on the Mall on Sunday to demand a stronger government reaction to the deadly epidemic of opiate addiction.
Kristen Taylor came from Richmond. Her best friend from high school died in March, leaving behind a 4-year-old daughter after an ugly, 10-year addiction to painkillers. Taylor’s husband is now hooked on the pills, too. Like her friend who died, he has begun substituting with heroin when the pills run out.
Taylor was joined on the Mall by the parents of a 19-year-old college student found dead by his younger brother in New Jersey, the mother of a dead teen from New Mexico, relatives of addicts from Cape Cod, Oklahoma, Ohio, and on and on.
The increasingly activist groups of grieving parents and bereaved spouses, doctors, drug-treatment counselors and researchers blame the Obama administration and federal regulators for failing to curb lucrative pharmaceutical industry efforts to expand the use of narcotic painkillers, known as opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
The drugs can be highly addictive, and when taken in greater quantities than prescribed, highly lethal.
“The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has been perfectly clear about what’s causing this epidemic: They are saying it’s too much prescribing of painkillers,” said Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.
More than 16,000 people die from opioid-related deaths in the United States each year, Kolodny said, citing federal statistics. Deaths from drug overdoses in this country now eclipse those from traffic accidents.
“A couple days ago, President Obama gave a speech about Ebola and said we have to do everything we can about the epidemic, and, of course, we do,” Kolodny said. “But about 3,000 West Africans have died from that epidemic. . . . In the United States during that same time frame, we’ve had 30,000 Americans die from drug overdoses.”
After hours of speeches at the base of the Washington Monument, hundreds of participants in the “Fed Up!” rally marched north to the White House. Some held signs that read “Rehabilitation not Incarceration” and “Lives Lost = Change Needed.”
Among them were Taylor, her daughter, and other friends and family of April Louis, who died in Richmond at age 30.
Louis’s mother, Mary Calloway, said she wants to see the government require more access to affordable drug treatment.
“We looked, and we really tried,” Calloway said. “But the in-depth, intensive treatment is $20,000 or more. It’s just not affordable for your average Joe.”
Others wanted more action on the front end, beginning with the resignation of the head of the Food and Drug Administration.
Many speakers in the coalition that gathered Sunday had signed a letter calling for the replacement of FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, arguing that under her leadership the agency has exacerbated the nationwide overdose epidemic involving opioids.
The agency overrode its advisory committee’s recommendation to reject the controversial new opioid drug Zohydro, a pure hydrocodone formulation. Dozens of state attorneys general also objected to allowing the drug on the market, and multiple governors have tried to effectively ban it.
“Come on, we don’t want these drugs in our community,” said Jennifer Weiss, who lost her son to an overdose in 2011 and now runs a nonprofit group called Healing Addiction in Our Community. “We are losing the equivalent of two jumbo jets full of people a week.”
Hamburg has acknowledged the problem of opioid abuse and says the FDA is “deeply committed” to fighting it. But she also says opioid drugs are a key part of treating chronic pain for millions of Americans.
Over the past decade, in part because of research generated by drug companies and pain specialists playing down the risks of opioids, the prescription use of painkillers has skyrocketed, and they have become a relatively common treatment for everything from back pain to arthritis.
Overdose deaths related to the powerful painkillers, according to the CDC, have more than tripled in the past two decades.
Brady Dennis contributed to this report.