Portenoy toured the country, describing opioids as a gift from nature and promoting access to narcotics as a moral argument. Being pain-free was a human right, he said. In 1993, he told the New York Times of a “growing literature showing that these drugs can be used for a long time, with few side-effects, and that addiction and abuse are not a problem”.
Long after the epidemic took hold, and the death toll rose into the hundreds of thousands in the US, Portenoy admitted that there was little basis for this claim and that he had been more interested in changing attitudes to opioids among doctors than in scientific rigour.
“In essence, this was education to destigmatise and because the primary goal was to destigmatise, we often left evidence behind,” he admitted years later as the scale of the epidemic unfolded.
Likewise, Haddox’s theory of pseudo-addiction was based on the study of a single cancer patient. At the time, though, the new thinking was a liberation for primary care doctors frustrated at the limited help they could offer patients begging to get a few hours’ sleep. Ballantyne was as enthusiastic as anyone and began teaching the gospel of pain relief at Harvard, and embracing opioids to treat her patients.
“Our message was a message of hope,” she said. “We were teaching that we shouldn’t withhold opiates from people suffering from chronic pain and that the risks of addiction were pretty low because that was the teaching we’d received.”
But then Ballantyne began to see signs in her patients that experience wasn’t matching theory. Doctors were told they could repeatedly ratchet up the dosage of narcotics and switch to a new and powerful drug, OxyContin, without endangering the patient, because the pain, in effect, cancelled out the risk of addiction. To her dismay, Ballantyne saw that many of her patients were not better off when taking the drugs and were showing signs of dependence.
Among those patients on high doses over months and years, Ballantyne heard from one after another that the more drugs they took, the worse their pain became. But if they tried to stop or cut back on the pills, their pain also worsened. They were trapped.
“You had never seen people in such agony as these people on high doses of opiates,” she told me. “And we thought it’s not just because of the underlying pain; it’s to do with the medication.”