What Makes Up Your Mind: Fighting the Deadly Fentanyl Epidemic,
with Dr. Keith Humphreys

February 2023

In the face of record opioid overdose deaths and cases of addiction, this episode of What Makes Up Your Mind offers hope.

Our guest is Dr. Keith Humphreys, the Esther Ting Memorial Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, an internationally recognized expert on addiction, treatment, and public policy. He was part of the Obama administration's team when the Affordable Care Act was crafted and passed and was the architect of policy to allow naloxone, a life-saving antidote to opioid overdose, to be used outside health care facilities so that first responders, and even family members and other caretakers could have it at hand. This strategy has saved untold lives. Among his honors, Dr. Humphreys was recognized in 2022 by Queen Elizabeth II for his addiction-related science and policy work in the United Kingdom by being made an Honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

Currently, and in the years during the worst of the COVID crisis, opioid addictions and overdose deaths have been overwhelmingly driven by illegal fentanyl, a synthetic drug manufactured with raw chemicals from China, illegally processed and smuggled into the United States by criminal organizations, primarily Mexican drug cartels, according to the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Besides its addictive properties, fentanyl's extreme potency means vast numbers of deadly doses can be trafficked without detection. Fentanyl pills can be disguised to look like other recreationally used prescription drugs and, in powder form, can be laced with other narcotics. 

A dire situation, to be sure, but experts are working to unlock the brain's susceptibility to these addictions, develop new treatment methods, and expand the efficacy of those we already have.  Dr. Humphreys' specialty is critical to putting these advancements to work, crafting strategies to deliver the help to those who desperately need it, and informing policymakers on science-based, structural solutions to the existing epidemic and ways to stop its spread. In our conversation, you'll hear about a commission chaired by Dr. Humphreys in which experts across North America have been working on this challenge. Recommendations from their work have been put into action in a first-ever policy in California designed to protect one of our most vulnerable populations. 

We also discuss research underway to make opioids safer because, as Dr. Humphreys points out, in medical uses, they are effective in relieving acute pain; "We don't just have an opioid crisis, we have a crisis of pain with a lot of people not getting the care they need." You'll learn how patients can work with their doctors to use these pain relievers safely, what loved ones can do to help mitigate risk and assist people who are addicted, the challenges of developing an addiction vaccine, and the latest treatment about which Dr. Humphreys is most optimistic.

What you'll hear most in this installment of What Makes Up Your Mind, is caring and compassion.  

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