Anna Lembke on the Opioid Epidemic

Anna Lembke on the Opioid Epidemic

by Deb Kory
Psychiatrist and addiction expert Anna Lembke discusses the sharp rise in opioid addiction and deaths, the doctors who have enabled it, and what clinicians can do to help.
Filed Under: Addiction


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The Problem of Access

Deb Kory: Dr. Lembke, you’re the program director for the Stanford University Addiction Medicine Fellowship and chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic. You recently published a book, Drug Dealer, MD: How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked and Why It’s So Hard to Stop, which focuses on people who have become addicted to opioids as a result of having them prescribed by doctors. It’s a shocking book, to say the least, but very informative and also deeply compassionate toward addicts of all kinds.

Let me begin with some startling statistics from the book: From 2000-2014, almost half a million people died from drug overdoses. And between 1999 and 2013, 175,000 people died specifically from prescription opioid overdoses. That’s an enormous number of people and my sense is that it’s rising very quickly every year, with prescription opioids being the lead killer, is that right?
Anna Lembke: Right. In 2016, somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 people died of a drug overdose, and of those, 50-75% were attributable to opioids. And about half of those opioids were prescriptions. But I think it’s important to recognize that what began as a prescription opioid epidemic has greatly expanded the number of people using heroin as well.
DK: Heroin addiction has become more mainstream because of prescription opioids. Can you explain why?
In 2016, somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 people died of a drug overdose, and of those, 50-75% were attributable to opioids. And about half of those opioids were prescriptions.
Well there are so many opioids out there in the community because of the over-prescribing problem and that access alone has meant that many more people have taken opioids. From teenagers taking it out of their parents’ or their grandparents’ medicine cabinets, to kids trading pills at school, to having it prescribed by your doctor for some minor procedure—this has normalized opioid use and made it relatively easy to obtain.

People are getting exposure through a prescription—either their own or somebody else’s—and, particularly for young people, transitioning to heroin isn’t that big a leap. They want more and it is easy and cheaper to go to heroin.

The big spikes in heroin use that we’ve seen in the last five years or so have mostly been among the 18 to 25-year-olds, and I think some of that is driven by a cultural phenomenon in which young people aren’t as afraid of heroin as the older generation. People in their 40s, 50s and 60s, for them to go to heroin would be crossing some kind of line that doesn’t fit with their identity.

On the other side, in the last five years or so there’s been a crackdown on opioid prescribing, and some people who had been receiving very high doses for a very long time all of a sudden have found themselves unable to get the opioids that their body and brain had gotten used to. Some of those people then turn to heroin.
DK: These are the older generation folks?
AL: Yes, they are.
DK: The depth of the agony kind of drives them there.
AL: Right.
DK: From reading your book I got the sense that doctors are finally beginning to understand the enormity of the epidemic and there has been a crackdown in the last few years which, as you said, can push people to seek opioids elsewhere. Were you at all afraid that there would be a crackdown in response to this book?
Young people aren’t as afraid of heroin as the older generation.
Unfortunately that has happened. In trying to highlight the dangers of over-prescribing, one of the unintended consequences is that the pendulum swings too far in the other direction. Doctors decide they’re not going to treat pain patients or prescribe opioids for anyone anymore. It’s unfortunate. A lot of my professional time right now is taken up with educating physicians about the “middle path”—prescribing judiciously while not enabling an addiction, and not reacting or retaliating in a way that means people aren’t getting the care that they need.
DK: Having gone through a PsyD program, I was shocked at how little training in addiction there was. I am someone who struggled with a prescription opioid addiction when I was younger and I found recovery in a twelve-step program, which was really transformative for me. I had been introduced to prescription opioids young because my mother had terrible rheumatoid arthritis and was herself hooked on pain killers, so in many ways I match the description of people in your book. Yet all through graduate school addicts were talked about as “others”—as if there couldn’t possibly be addicts “among us.” Thankfully there was a teacher who’d been in a twelve-step program for years and was very open about it, but that was really the exception. There was no specific class on addiction and it would just come up here and there in other classes or case conference.

One of the things I appreciate most about your book is how it destigmatizes addiction. It’s obviously an enormous problem and one that the medical establishment has played a big role in escalating. I think the book will make it easier for people struggling with addiction to ask for help and, hopefully, for clinicians like me with a history of addiction to be able to be more transparent about it with each other and with clients when they are struggling with addiction issues.
AL: Thank you so much for saying that. It means a lot to me. And thanks for your openness about your own struggles.
DK: I actually think there is a lot of addiction among mental health practitioners, but many feel too ashamed or embarrassed to get help because we are “professionals,” healers. We’re not supposed to have problems ourselves. I feel like this is a small way that I can help destigmatize it.

My understanding is that medical doctors get even less training in addiction than psychologists. Is that true?
AL: You can say that again. I went through medical school in the 1990s, and the extent of my addiction training was being instructed to attend one AA meeting. Honestly, it hasn’t gotten much better.
DK: It’s so surprising given how many people are struggling with addiction.
I’m so embarrassed when I look back at the kind of doctor I was.
I’m so embarrassed when I look back at the kind of doctor I was. I mean, I’m a psychiatrist. Here I was purportedly wanting to help people struggling with mental illness, yet I really did not consider addiction an illness of any kind, and I didn’t think it was in my purview to treat people with addiction. I thought that was somebody else’s problem.
DK: Whose problem did you think it was?
AL: I don’t even know. Just not me. What’s so fascinating is that my dad was probably, in retrospect, a functional alcoholic. He was a surgeon, and he was a very serious binge drinker. He was never professionally diagnosed or treated but he had a serious drinking problem, so part of my rejection of this patient population came out of a negative transference—“I’m not going to deal with those people.”

We all have a story like that. Whether it’s our own addiction or somebody in the family, we don’t want to look at that piece of ourselves or that part of our family history, and our patients suffer because of it. And we’re in a system that to a large extent still doesn’t view it as an illness but rather as a form of moral corruption or a weakness of will. It makes it hard for us to look at our own stuff.
DK: It strikes me that there is basically no way to have a therapy practice that totally excludes addiction. Even if you tried really hard, you often get clients who present a certain way when they come in, or might even really believe they don’t have a problem, but then over time as the relationship develops, you learn that they drink to blackout 4 nights a week or smoke pot first thing in the morning, all day and last thing at night every single day. These things aren’t often part of the initial intake.
We know at least 50% of people who show up in the emergency room with severe trauma have been using substances.
It’s such an exercise in denial for psychiatrists to think that they could make a complete diagnostic evaluation and not ask about substance use, but that happens more often than not. And it’s not just psychiatrists, but other types of physicians, too. We know at least 50% of people who show up in the emergency room with severe trauma have been using substances. Primary care doctors and oncologists see addiction problems. People with cancer get the big C-card pass, but I know a lot of people with cancer who have serious substance use problems. So we all need to be asking those questions of our patients right from the start.

We're Not Asking the Questions

DK: Since our readers are primarily mental health clinicians, I’m wondering how those of us who see patients in therapy and other non-medical settings can help with this and also interface with doctors who may be enabling our clients’ addictions?
AL: Psychotherapists and other non-prescribers in the mental health care field can play an absolutely vital role. In many instances, doctors today are so pressed for time and often don’t have the kind of trust that counselors have built up over time seeing patients regularly. You guys hear the real stuff that I, as an MD, often don’t. But I would also say that in my experience, even in the limited time I have with patients, on some level they’re dying to talk about it. All you have to do is just ask the question, and they will tell you, and they’ll be so relieved to be able to share it.

The bigger problem is that we’re not asking the questions. All of us, including psychologists and non-prescribers, need to ask about substance use, including prescription drug misuse. Then the vital role you can play is—with the patient’s permission—call the prescriber. In most cases, if it’s done with a reasonable amount of humility, the prescriber will be grateful and even thrilled.

Let me just give you an example from my clinic just today. I had a man come in, and he is in recovery from an alcohol and cannabis use disorder, has been in recovery for many years. He also has Attention Deficit Disorder. He went to see a psychiatrist at Kaiser who prescribed him 30 milligrams of Adderall. He stayed at 30 milligrams for about six months, and slowly the dose was creeping up. And now he’s at 90 milligrams a day, running out two weeks early, having to white-knuckle it until he goes back and sees the psychiatrist, who then fills his prescription for Adderall.

How about if I call your doctor right now while you're here?
I asked him, “Have you talked about this with your psychiatrist?” And he said, “No, I haven’t. I know I should. I just haven’t been able to get up the courage to tell her that I’ve essentially relapsed on the pills that she’s prescribing.” And then I said to him, “Well, now that you’ve told us about it, would you be willing to talk with her and let her know?” He said, “Yeah. I really need to. I really want to. I would be willing.” But there was some hesitation in his voice. And then I said to him, “Well, how about if I were to call her? Would you be comfortable with that?” And he said, “That would be so great. If you could just call her and tell her that—because I’m not sure if by the time I get to my appointment I’ll be able to do it.”

And then I said to him, “Well, how about if I called her right now while you’re here? Would you be okay with that?” He said, “That would be great. I would love it if you would do that.” So I called her up, and I said, “Hey, I want to let you know patient X is here and he’s really appreciated your care, and he feels so much shame and embarrassment, but this is what happened, and he wants you to know.” And then I said, “This is my name, this is my number. Please call me. We want to help.” It’s not, “You’re so dumb that you missed this. You’re a bad doctor and I’m good doctor.” I’ve been duped a million times. I’m not a mind reader.

Of course, it’s not that every patient every time will say, “Oh, yes. Please call.” Many times they’ll say, “Oh, no. That’s okay, don’t tell my doctor. I’ll take care of it.” But the truth is, sometimes they will say, “Yes, I’m ready. Please help me with that.” And if you don’t ask and you don’t offer to interface, then they won’t suggest it.
DK: So much of what keeps addicts in their addiction is a deep sense of shame, and what I like about your approach is that you’re cutting right through it. You’re giving them an opening and also modeling a total lack of judgment. You’re just very business-as-usual about it.
AL: Let me tell you something else that I’ve learned to do over the years regarding this whole issue of shame. I have a patient who had been in recovery from her alcohol addiction for six years, and just relapsed in the last six months, and she gets sober for a week and relapses, back and forth. She had been sober for about a month and then I just heard that she relapsed again. She left a message and just said, “I relapsed and I’m not going to come in today because I need to go to rehab.”

Somebody who has the disease of addiction and relapses is exactly the same as somebody who has cancer that was in remission and gets a recurrence of their tumor.
One of the things I’ve learned is when you get that kind of message, don’t just be okay with them saying, “I’m not coming in. I’m going to rehab.” What that actually means is, “I’m going to sit at home drinking until somehow, by some miracle, I get into rehab.” So I said to my residents, “Call her. Tell her we need to see her at her appointment, and tell her to bring her family.” So she showed up at her appointment and she brought her family and the first thing that I did when I walked in the door was to give her a big hug, and I said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Because to me—and this is the key take-home message—somebody who has the disease of addiction and relapses is exactly the same as somebody who has cancer that was in remission and gets a recurrence of their tumor.

What would you do if you walked into the office and somebody had a recurrence of their cancer? You would say, “I am so sorry,” and you would give them a big hug. And that’s exactly what we need to do with addicted patients, because that’s exactly how it is for them. It’s exactly like that. And they’re so appreciative. “Oh, my God,” she said, “Thank you, thank you,” and she was crying. She was devastated, absolutely devastated that she’s relapsed. She’s not going, “Oh goody, I relapsed. I got to get high.” It’s not like that.

A "Cunning and Baffling" Disease

DK: That’s such a beautiful story. It can be really disheartening and challenging for clinicians to work with addicts because relapses can be so devastating and all the shame around it leads to lying and coming in and out of treatment. Do you have any advice for therapists around dealing with the pain and frustration that brings up?
AL: Conceptualizing it as a disease is a really helpful way to maintain a compassionate frame of reference. And then the other piece of it is just being really transparent with patients. “If you lie then I can’t really help you. At least tell me the truth about what you’re doing, and let’s talk about some strategies or what we might do.” In general I find that if patients show up, they’re happy to talk about it.

Compassion can also open up a sense of awe. It’s like, “Oh, my God. What a horrible disease. You really don’t want to be doing this, and yet here you are.” As they say in AA, the disease is “cunning and baffling.” And it is. Awe may not be the right word, but to really recognize the power of addiction, the grip it can have on people.
DK: I like the word awe. Addiction is kind of the grand leveler. It can destroy the hopes and dreams of people from every walk of life.
AL: Yes. And it’s important to be able to really witness the tragedy of that.
DK: Are you able to predict at all who will be able to recover and who won’t?
AL: You know, the more I’m in this strange profession that we’re in—it’s kind of a wonderful and weird job—the more convinced I am that I have no idea who’s going to get better. When I was younger I thought I could tell, but I’ve had too many experiences where someone comes in and I totally identify with them and think, “Oh, a slam dunk. I know exactly what to do. They’re going to be better in a month.” Those have been some of my worst outcomes.

And then I get people who walk in my door and I just think, “Train wreck.” And I literally pray for them. I don’t know what you do; I pray to God. I’m like, “Please, God, help me, because I don’t think I’m going to be able to help this person.” They’re telling me their story and wanting me to help them, and I’m thinking to myself, “I have no idea how I’m going to help this person.” Can you relate to that?
DK: Oh, of course.
AL: Sometimes those people are the ones who get better. It’s so unpredictable.
DK: As a recovering addict myself, I tend to pick up on addiction issues pretty quickly, but I’ve heard from so many people that they were addicted for years without their therapists picking up on it, or in some cases the therapist just didn’t think it was a big deal. Do you feel like it’s incumbent upon mental health professionals of all sorts to have more training and expertise in this area?
AL: Oh, absolutely. Addicts will often see psychiatrists and therapists and talk about everything under the sun—every last thing their mother or father ever did, every dream they’ve had—but they won’t talk about their substance use. People who are shooting up heroin. It happens so often. It’s not a minor issue.

Across the country, medical schools are working hard to try to revamp their curriculum to incorporate more addiction training. We’re certainly doing that here at Stanford, working very hard to at least get the basics to our medical students so they can go out and not harm patients because of ignorance.

That’s the state we’re in right now: Patients are actually being harmed.
But that’s the state we’re in right now: Patients are actually being harmed. Not because most doctors are bad people, but because most doctors are very ignorant about this disease and so, inadvertently, cause harm by ignoring it—or worse yet, aiding and abetting it by prescribing in a way that’s not safe for the patient.

The former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli, is in recovery. I went to a symposium at the White House where he was one of the main speakers, and he said something along the lines of, “I look forward to the day when I, as somebody in recovery, don’t have to explain to my doctor what recovery is and how he or she should treat me.” I thought that was eloquently said.

Evolving Conceptions of Pain

DK: It’s very common for people in recovery to go to the doctor and say, “I’m in recovery. Please do not prescribe me any narcotics.” And, literally against their wishes, they’ll come out of some procedure and they are prescribed Vicodin. Many hard drug users end up relapsing after having some kind of surgery where opioids are prescribed.

You describe in your book how these prescriptions became heavily incentivized in healthcare. Or, rather, you would be penalized for not treating pain. The Joint Commission, which accredits healthcare organizations, announced that pain was “the fifth vital sign,” and made reimbursement funds contingent upon asking about and treating pain in every patient. Of course, the primary treatment of pain was opioid prescriptions so those skyrocketed. Given what we know now, is the conception of pain and how to treat it beginning to change?
AL: No.
DK: No?
This new ethos of people being fragile and pain being dangerous has really helped drive the over-prescribing of all kinds of potentially addictive drugs, from benzodiazepines to opioid analgesics.
I mean, pain has gone through a fascinating evolution in the history of medicine. Prior to 1850 or so—which is also prior to anesthesia and convenient forms of analgesia or pain relief outside of drinking some whiskey—doctors actually believed that pain was healthy for the body, that experiencing some degree of pain, let’s say during a surgical procedure, would boost the cardiovascular system, the immune response. And there was a very prevalent idea that, on a spiritual level, pain had benefits for people. This idea that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Over the course of the last century and a half or so, that has really changed, not just in medical culture but in society as well. We now consider pain to be a dangerous phenomenon in part because, well, it’s painful in the moment. But there’s also a widespread idea that we’re very fragile creatures, and that if we experience pain in the moment it will set us up for future pain.

The quintessential example of that is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s based around the idea that if we have some kind of emotional distress, it will leave a psychic wound that will cause emotional distress and suffering in the future. I think it’s important to recognize that that is a very modern idea. Prior to about a hundred years ago, people never thought about emotional distress and pain in this way. I’m not saying they didn’t have plenty of traumatic experiences but it wasn’t conceived of as “trauma.” They dealt with it in different ways and it may even have been kind of a badge of honor to be a wounded warrior.

But that is not at all how we think of it now, and I think that this new ethos of people being fragile and pain being dangerous has really helped drive the over-prescribing of all kinds of potentially addictive drugs, from benzodiazepines to opioid analgesics. This idea that we have to eliminate all pain and we have to do it immediately and, especially as healthcare providers, that we are remiss in our duties if we don’t. Not all healthcare providers agree with that mentality, but it is so dominant and pervasive in medicine, and especially in the mental healthcare field, where, if we’re causing them to feel distress or suffer in some way, then we’re not doing our job.
DK: I wonder how this relates to the rise of positive psychology and our cultural obsession with happiness. Pain seems like something that falls outside the realm of happiness.
AL: Absolutely. And yet, these paradigms are dialectics. The pendulums swings one way, and things don’t quite work, and then they swing back. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)—speaking of dialectics—has been enormously helpful for certain types of patients, in part because what it teaches is distress tolerance.

It’s not just people with mental illness who need distress tolerance, though, it’s all of us.
We’re so insulated from any kind of painful or distressing experience that we’re deficient in distress tolerance.
We’re so insulated from any kind of painful or distressing experience that we’re deficient in distress tolerance. DBT puts it front and center and says: We’re going to teach you distress tolerance. When you’re suffering physically or emotionally we want you to sit there. Sit in that moment. Or we want to have you stick your hands or your face in an ice bucket to distract yourself. This is a fascinating movement and a potential antidote to this idea that all pain needs to be eliminated.

There's No Magic Pill

DK: What is a good comprehensive course of treatment for someone struggling with addiction? I know that there are a lot of different modalities that you use for various kinds of patients, but I’m assuming there’s an intake process and then you make decisions about treatment based on people’s financial resources, emotional resources, the severity of the addiction, whether to send them to a rehab or to 12 Step programs. How do you make decisions about where to send people, and is there some kind of standard treatment that you see as the most beneficial?
AL: Great question. Thanks for setting it up that way, too, because there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment. Having access to a bunch of different modalities is the ideal situation, because what works for one person is not going to work for someone else. AA may be the secret to recovery for one person and be an absolutely terrible fit for another.

A lot of patients will come in and want some kind of magic pill. We do use pharmacotherapy medications to treat addiction—although they’re generally underutilized by healthcare providers and should be utilized more—but there is no magic pill.
DK: When you say pharmacotherapy, do you mean drugs like methadone?
AL: Not just that. Also Antabuse, Vivitrol, Suboxone, Naltrexone, Campral for alcohol use disorders, nicotine replacement and other modalities for nicotine use disorders. These medications are underutilized, but they are not magic pills.

We have to talk a lot about how addiction is a biopsychosocial disease, and that the best treatment for the biological part is abstaining—not using the drug of choice for a period of time or maybe forever, depending upon the person, so that the brain can reset itself. And then the psychosocial piece, the long-term psychological and social interventions that are really the most important pieces.

We’re moving increasingly away from recommending that people go to 30-day rehabs.
We’re moving increasingly away from recommending that people go to 30-day rehabs. There’s definitely a time and a place for that, but we’re emphasizing, “Can we find a way to help you not use addictively in your regular life?” If we remove you and put you in a residential facility, you might do great during that time, but when you get out you have to return to the real world and your life. So initially, and also for the long term, we're looking for how to help people change their lives while they’re still in their lives.

That requires a lot of creativity from patients, too. So much of their substance use is ingrained in their daily living and so the key is to figure out, “How can I change my routine, my environment, the people I connect with? How can I change my internal life, my external life, on a very deep level?”
DK: So let’s say I’m a middle-aged patient who got hooked on Oxycontin for a pain disorder. I come in, and I tell you, “No way will I ever come off pain medication. It’s too painful, and I’m not going to a stupid 12-Step program.” Where would you go with me?
AL: For someone like that who doesn’t necessarily self-identify as having an addiction but who strongly self-identifies as having a pain disorder, and who has been on opioids for a long time, prescribed by a physician, I probably would go to buprenorphine, which is a special opioid that we can use for pain. It’s FDA-approved for the treatment of pain, and also FDA-approved for the treatment of an opioid use disorder.
DK: Are there people for whom long-term opioid use is an appropriate treatment?
For some people, the risk of relapse is just too high when they try to go off of opioids.
Yes. Absolutely. Because, number one, the data are convincing that, for some people, the risk of relapse is just too high when they try to go off of opioids. And from a biochemical or neurological point of view, it just makes sense that after years of exposure to opioids, that the brain, no matter how much time off of drugs you give it, is not going to reset itself. And those are people for whom opioids is the only way that they can feel normal in the world.
DK: What about for pain?
AL: Well, for pain theoretically, too, if you have the right kind of opioid. Both buprenorphine and methadone have unique properties, but the problem with methadone prescribed in pill form is that it has a really high overdose risk, so it’s not safe. It’s only safe when prescribed from a methadone maintenance clinic. But buprenorphine is a really unique drug, which makes it pretty good for pain, though many people develop a tolerance and end up needing more and more. And there may be—God forbid I say this—some people for whom chronic opioids for pain work. I don’t see those people, but I believe they’re out there.
DK: What do you think about the “stages of change” model for addiction?
If we waited until every pain patient on opioids was ready to change, we’d have even more people dying.
I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I think the "stages of change” idea can be very helpful for clinicians as well as patients, but I think it can also inadvertently provide an excuse not to get in there and move toward treatment. There’s no actual evidence that the stage of change that somebody is in predicts their engagement in treatment or their outcome. When people are mandated or forced for one reason or another to engage in treatment, even if they’re in a pre-contemplation stage, they don’t necessarily do any worse than people who are in an action stage.
DK: Oh, that’s interesting.
AL: Isn’t it? it’s a fallacy that people have to be “ready for change.” I mean, if we waited until every pain patient on opioids was ready to change, we’d have even more people dying.

One of my great mentors in the addiction field felt that one of the most important things that he could do when he walked into the room with a patient was to shake them up. Get them off balance instead of agreeing with them and throwing soft balls. He’d be like, “You know what? That’s just ridiculous.” Often he would just leave, and they would be angry at him. But that’s the kind of unsettling experience that sometimes—if it’s done empathically, obviously—can make a big difference.

Big Pharma and Institutional Denial

DK: Since we’re focusing on the opioid epidemic, how does treatment for prescription pain pill addiction differ from alcoholism?
About a quarter of patients who are prescribed an opioid for more than three months, even for a bona fide medical condition, will develop some type of prescription opioid misuse problem.
One of the big differences is that in many instances, patients have been getting their heroin equivalent from a doctor, so it’s very hard for them to shift from self-identifying as a pain patient who is getting treatment to somebody who’s become addicted. The way that I work with that is to really normalize the process and just say, “Hey, I totally get that you have pain, and this was started by a doctor for a real medical condition, but it happens that this is also a very addictive medication. And what we’re seeing now is that many people—even when receiving this from a doctor—have gotten addicted.” And then I always emphasize that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, that it’s not their fault and that they’re not alone.

Big Pharma did a good job teaching doctors something that wasn’t true, which is that the risk of getting addicted was less than one percent, as long as it was prescribed by a doctor. Now we know that’s not true. Probably about a quarter of patients who are prescribed an opioid for more than three months, even for a bona fide medical condition, will develop some type of prescription opioid misuse problem.
DK: Wow.
AL: Yeah. Twenty to thirty percent of people prescribed opioids daily for more than three months will develop some kind of opioid misuse problem. The longer it’s prescribed and the higher the dose, the more likely they are to develop a problem.
DK: So you’re saying that the primary difference in treatment between prescription opioid addicts and alcoholics is of self-awareness around having an addiction. You think alcoholics are more likely to identify as such?
AL: Well, not always. That element of denial is part and parcel of addiction. I think the difference is that the opioid epidemic has involved institutional denial. Now things are shifting as we realize that people can get addicted to opioids even if the doctor prescribed it. On the other hand, alcohol really has not ever been considered medicinal, except in rare instances.

We have the same problem now with cannabis.
Because we have medical marijuana, someone will come in, a young person with no identifiable, objectively verifiable disease process, telling you that their 12-times-a-day cannabis use is “medicinal.”
Because we have medical marijuana, someone will come in, a young person with no identifiable, objectively verifiable disease process, telling you that their 12-times-a-day cannabis use is “medicinal.” It’s very hard to combat that narrative because it’s a prevalent narrative in our culture. This is where this biopsychosocial model of addiction is so interesting and important. None of us lives in a vacuum. We live in the world, and our autobiographical narratives about our lives and why we do things are informed by the culture and the economics and the time in which we live. And we live in a time in which we believe in better living through chemistry. Whether it’s a medicine that a doctor prescribes or a medicine that I get from my friend in my study group at college, we have this idea that using chemicals to change the way you feel is perfectly okay.
DK: That’s an interesting point. Most people don’t believe that it’s possible to become addicted to pot or that it much matters if you do.
AL: Very true. But every day in my clinic, I see many examples of people who do get addicted to pot and who realize it and are coming in for help.

Twelve-Step Programs

DK: I noticed on your website you talked about bringing a spiritual approach to your work, and I wanted to ask you your thoughts on twelve-step programs. There’s a lot of division in the mental health field about their effectiveness and I’ve encountered a fair amount of contempt among clinicians for twelve-step programs, usually among people who have never really interfaced with them. There’s a common critique that they require you to believe in God, that it’s a cult, that the steps are irrelevant, etc.

I appreciate your emphasis on spirituality because many clinicians are afraid to use that word. The drive in the last couple of decades has been toward “evidence-based approaches,” and these are often touted as the counterpoint to twelve-step programs. There have been lots of articles lately about how twelve-step programs don’t really work but such and such evidence-based therapy does. What are your thoughts about this?
AL: I think it’s important to recognize that we’re in an era of twelve-step bashing. It’s very clear that twelve steps is down and getting kicked. The program came into being in part because the medical profession wasn’t doing anything to help people with addiction. People had to figure it out for themselves and it turns out that the AA movement is one of the most remarkable social movements in modern history. It’s really an incredible, incredible movement. You can go to an AA meeting pretty much in any country in the world. How many things can you say that about? It’s absolutely amazing.

But I think this sort of one-size-fits-all dogmatic approach to problems of addiction is what caused this quite vituperative backlash toward AA, and as a result, people are throwing the baby out with the bath water. The truth is that for people who actively participate in AA—AA in particular, but other twelve-step programs probably as well—they have very good outcomes. Their outcomes are better long-term than engaging in individual psychotherapy or group psychotherapy or really any professionally mediated treatment you can identify. So it’s a very robust phenomenon for those who actively participate—and that’s a key feature because not everybody does.

If someone goes to three AA meetings and then doesn’t go anymore and says, “AA doesn’t work,” that’s a misrepresentation because that person hasn’t actually engaged in the program. Those who engage have better outcomes. I’m always thrilled if I have a patient who’s actively engaged in AA because I know already the culture that they’ve been immersed in, the learning that they’ve done. It’s so helpful for me as an addiction specialist to be able to tag onto that and dovetail with that and reinforce that.
I’m not in recovery myself, but I’ve personally worked the twelve steps in part to understand what they’re all about, and in part because I think they’re really useful for a lot of different problems.
I’m not in recovery myself, but I’ve personally worked the twelve steps in part to understand what they’re all about, and in part because I think they’re really useful for a lot of different problems.

So I can converse with my patients on a pretty good level for somebody who’s not in recovery about what step they’re on, if they’re working with their sponsor, how that relationship is going, how meetings are going. I think it’s really important to be able to do that. It creates continuity between their twelve-step life and their professionally mediated addiction treatment.

Do I think twelve step works for everybody? Absolutely not. But another great advantage of twelve steps, which I think is underappreciated, is that it has incredible access. It’s everywhere and it’s free. And you can go when you’re intoxicated. There aren’t many clinicians who can say that. I also say to patients, “If you get yourself a good sponsor, that’s somebody you can call at midnight. Can you call me at midnight? No. I’m not going to pick up, and I’m probably not going to respond until later the next day. You call your sponsor at midnight, and they will be there for you.” That’s pretty amazing. There’s so much wisdom in the twelve steps—the cumulative wisdom of people in recovery, it’s awe-inspiring, really.
DK: I agree and I really appreciate your take on it. Also that you’re not forcing it down anyone’s throat.
AL: Right. I can’t. If I could, I probably would. But I can’t.
DK: That doesn’t work. Anyone who has ever encountered serious addiction knows that. It seems to me like the big lesson here is that there are many effective roads to treating addiction.
AL: Many roads to the top of the mountain. And we should really appreciate what each one has to offer.
DK: Well, you are a gift to the world and I have no doubt that you are helping save so many lives. Aside from reading your book, are there any other tips for people to get educated and get training?
AL: I put together a free online CME course through Stanford, which talks about the neurobiology of addiction and the prescription drug epidemic. That might be helpful. And then we’re making a course now that should be coming out soon about how to taper patients off of opioids, benzos and really anything that’s habit forming. It’s focused on the psychological aspects of preparing patients for it and I think even non-prescribers might find that helpful.

Also, the California Society of Addiction Medicine (CSAM) is a great resource for learning more about addiction. We have an annual conference every fall. This year it’s in San Francisco in August. For any practitioner, PhD, MD, MFT, etc., who wants to learn, it’s a three-and-a-half-day blitz course on addiction. It’s a great resource and taught me a lot about addiction treatment.

DK: Well thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your important work.

* Read an excerpt from Drug Dealer, MD: How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked, and Why It’s So Hard to Stop here.
AL: It was a pleasure.

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*Not approved for CE by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)

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Anna Lembke Anna Lembke, MD, received her undergraduate degree in Humanities from Yale University and her medical degree from Stanford University. She is on the faculty of the Stanford University School of Medicine, a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and a diplomate of the American Board of Addiction Medicine. She is the Program Director for the Stanford University Addiction Medicine Fellowship, and Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic. She has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles, chapters, and commentaries, including in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Journal of General Internal Medicine, and Addiction. Dr. Lembke sees patients, teaches, and does research. She is the author of a book on the prescription drug epidemic: Drug Dealer, MD: How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked, and Why It’s So Hard to Stop (Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2016).

Dr. Anna Lembke's key areas of interest include treating patients who have become addicted to prescription drugs. She takes a holistic, harm-reduction approach to each patient, and encourages spiritual and alternative therapies in the process of healing.
Deb Kory Deb Kory, PsyD, is the content manager at  She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute and has a part-time private practice in Berkeley, CA. She loves both of her jobs and feels lucky to be able to divide her time between therapy, writing and editing. Before deciding to become a psychotherapist, she worked as the managing editor of Tikkun Magazine and published her writings in Tikkun, The Huffington Post and Alternet. Currently, she is working on turning her dissertation, Psychologists: Healers or Instruments of War?, into a book. In it, she describes in great detail the historical context and events that led to psychologists creating the torture program at Guantanamo and other "black sites" during the War on Terror.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Discuss the extent of the prescription opioid epidemic in America
  • Describe different treatment modalities used in the treatment of opiate and other types of addiction
  • Describe the changing conceptions of pain in the field of medicine over the last 150 years

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here