This is another example of how dangerous it is to combine opiates with other CNS depressants (sedatives). Opiates, by themselves, are generally safe, as are most sedatives. It is the combination that is particularly risky.
Still, others speculate that Mr. Monteith was more vulnerable to overdose after recently going through a detox program, because his body was no longer able to tolerate high doses of heroin. There is no evidence indicating he used high doses of heroin in the past or at the time of his death, making this conjecture less plausible. In addition, while it is theoretically possible to die from an overdose of heroin alone, in practical terms this is rare. Only about a quarter of the thousands of heroin-related deaths each year occur as a result of heroin alone. The vast majority of heroin-related deaths -- a whopping 70 percent or more -- are caused by combining heroin with another sedative, usually alcohol. Regrettably, Mr. Monteith too was a victim of this combination. [emphasis added - Ed]
As a neuropsychopharmacologist who specializes in substance abuse, I find the focus on factors other than this drug combination distracting and irresponsible. Too often in these tragic cases some "experts" emphasize the failures of rehab, rather than providing the drug-using population with practical information that could prevent countless overdose deaths. We are missing an important public health education opportunity to decrease drug-related accidents.
The Coroner concluded, "there is no evidence to suggest Mr. Monteith's death was anything other than a most-tragic accident." What was not said is that this horrible accident, and the thousands of others that occur each year, could have been prevented if our public health education message clearly focused on the potential dangers associated with the alcohol-heroin combination instead of being preoccupied with blaming rehab and vilifying heroin.
First Monteith was coerced into rehab by his employer in an "intervention." Apparently his employer found out that Monteith was "using" again and that was sufficient evidence, not whether Monteith's work was actually impaired (which as with tobacco or alcohol should be the standard used, it matters not what drugs an individual consumes but how they behave). Second, the rehab chosen did not use evidence-based practices, but focused on abstinence and the 12-step model. Maia Szalavitz fills us in on the details:
Apparently, these “experts” suggested Eric Clapton’s Crossroads rehab in Antigua, an old-school program that does not “believe in” using medications to treat opioid addiction, despite all the data favoring them as lifesaving for people whose problems involve heroin or painkillers. Murphy implies that Monteith was in another rehab (reportedly Betty Ford) that “didn’t work”—but that after the second program, “all indications were that he’d gone through the Steps.”
We all know what happened next. Although the intervention did get him into treatment—unlike the one conducted on [Kurt] Cobain, which was followed directly by his suicide—Monteith followed the pattern of the 90 percent of opioid addicts who are coerced into 12-step recovery and denied an adequate period of maintenance treatment: He relapsed.
He also followed two other predictable and dangerous patterns.
First, the risk of overdose is highest in the initial few months after being in rehab or any other situation where a period of abstinence has occurred. After a complete detoxification, a person’s tolerance drops precipitously—meaning that the dose they took before treatment without even getting very high may now be potentially fatal. The first two weeks following prison, for example, were shown by one study to carry a greater than 120-fold increased risk of overdose death; that extreme risk elevation holds for whenever the person first uses again after a period without opioids.
Second, the vast majority of “opioid overdoses”—overdoses involving drugs like heroin or Vicodin—are not accurately characterized by that name. Instead, they are really “opioid mixture overdoses,” typically including an opioid and other depressants like alcohol and/or benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium. Opioids are the drug that most often makes these mixes turn deadly—but only one third or fewer of so-called opioid overdoses involve those drugs by themselves.
Monteith took the deadliest possible combination—alcohol and heroin, whose actions to slow breathing are not additive but multiple—at the deadliest possible time. He was likely not informed about the risk because abstinence-focused rehabs typically don’t provide harm reduction advice. He certainly was not provided with maintenance medication like methadone or buprenorphine that can dramatically reduce that risk; he may not even have know that maintenance was an option—just as Cobain was told he could not take any more opioids, even for his chronic pain. Nor, apparently, were Monteith or his loved ones given naloxone, which can reverse opioid overdose, or instructed on how to use it.
How Addiction Treatment Killed Cory Monteith by Maia SzalavitzCory Monteith's death was due to his own actions to be sure. But that does not mean that we, as a society, have not contributed to it with our drug policies. Had heroin been legal and pure, and accurate drug information was covered in grade school in place of counterproductive anti-drug "education", perhaps it would be widely known not to mix opiates with sedatives.
Had opiates been legal, I highly doubt his employer would have been able to coerce Monteith into rehab. The very notion of staging an "intervention" over non-problematic opiate use would seem as absurd as staging an intervention over occasional alcohol drinking. If Monteith's opiate use did indeed become problematic and interfere with his work, he should have at least have been given the option of maintenance medicines. Szalavitz also addresses this in the same article cited above:
In no other type of treatment are FDA-approved medications seen as appropriate to withhold—without even informing the patient of their existence. No cancer center in the US provides only chemo while refusing to inform patients about radiation treatment or putting it down as something “we don’t believe in here” because it is “cheating” rather than “real recovery.” But the equivalent is done in addiction treatment—even for celebrities—every day. If we don’t want to keep losing patients, we’ve got to actually treat addiction like a disease, by providing evidence-based treatment, not just repeating faith-based philosophies.Monteith's death, like thousands of others, could have been prevented if our drug policies approached drugs in a rational way. Instead we get vilification of drugs and the people who use them. Meanwhile the body count grows ever higher.