Lethal Weapon: Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan

Outraged at an epidemic of accidental addiction to prescription painkillers that’s causing devastation among users and bystanders alike, superstar narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan takes aim at a surprising new foe: the American medical establishment

by Nanette Varian • Editor { View Profile }
Bridget Brennan Dan Winters photo
Photograph: Opening and portrait photos by Dan Winters

Brennan had met her husband, who is also a lawyer, on a blind date. “I didn’t think I could manage running SIB and being a new mom,” she admits. “But I’ve been extremely fortunate to have great babysitters”—Carol 1, followed by Carol 2. “Without them, I never would have had the peace of mind to come to work.” The children are teenagers now. Still, Brennan says, “when I was feeling a little overwhelmed a few years ago, I was sort of musing out loud, and I said to the kids, ‘What if I just quit working and stayed home?’ And my son said, ‘No, then you’d just bother us all the time. And besides, what would Carol do?’ ”

Brennan laughs, pauses, then says, “If I were to bring all my focus and energy and lay it on my kids, I think it would be overbearing.”

ALTHOUGH SHE RAILS against the physicians who now “prescribe this stuff like candy,” Brennan, like most people today, would agree that nobody should suffer needlessly from debilitating discomfort. As boomers age—and life spans increase—the demand for effective pain relief will only grow stronger. There was a time when doctors were too reluctant to prescribe these drugs, says Andrew Kolodny, MD, chair of the department of psychiatry at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn and president of the group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. “It was silly to worry about addiction in someone who’s got a terminal illness,” explains Kolodny, who has served with Brennan on task forces and given presentations to her staff.

Perspectives began to change in 1986, when the World Health Organization recommended the use of opioids where necessary for end-of-life care. The undertreatment of people with chronic pain who were not about to die also gained traction as an issue, and by 1996 Purdue Pharma was marketing opioids—especially its new drug, OxyContin—as a safe, long-term solution. Addiction and OD rates soared, and in 2007 three top Purdue executives pleaded guilty to misrepresenting OxyContin’s addictive qualities, an admission that led to charges against the individuals and the company and some $634 million in fines.

A new hydrocodone pill, about 10 times as powerful as Vicodin, is now being tested by several manufacturers. Clearly, “opiophobia” has been overcome. But what many patients and doctors don’t realize, says Kolodny, is that opioids are in the same pharmaceutical class as heroin. “And if taking heroin for your back pain sounds like a bad idea,” he says, “you’re right.”

For an estimated 116 million Americans living with chronic pain, however, opioids may feel like a lifesaver. “Untreated or poorly managed pain can compromise every aspect of [a person’s] life, ” says Micke A. Brown, BSN, RN, director of communications for the American Pain Foundation.* The organization gets much of its funding from the pharmaceutical industry; Brown explains that the foundation seeks money from diverse sources, adding, “If government grants were available to address pain, we would be seeking those as well. Sadly, they are seriously lacking.”

Because she was traveling, Brown responded to More’s query via e-mail. She never uses the word opioid in her reply, despite several questions about this specific class of drug. She does say that we have a “basic human right to timely, appropriate and effective [pain] treatment” and that treatment plans “must include access to medications, including controlled substances.” Yet “barriers to accessing appropriate pain care are increasing,” Brown warns. “Those whose focus is law enforcement will use that lens and not necessarily think about the medical needs of others.”

Originally published in the June 2012 issue

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zhang rendong06.15.2012

hmm, so beautiful she is.
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Coco Early06.13.2012

Wonderful, in depth article. As a Twin Cities resident, I believe the issues Bridget has taken on are everywhere in this country; not just NYC.
I applaud Bridget as a dedicated professional tackling tough issues.
She is an inspiration to me and my daughters.
Thank you Bridget,
Coco "Corky" Dugan Early

Rhonda Bayless06.05.2012

This article should scare anyone who reads it!

Rhonda Bayless06.05.2012

I tremble in my boots everytime i read about this issue, because the ONLY people that are affected is those in legitimate, chronic pain that are treated like criminals because 'tylenol' doesn't do a damn thing for the type of pain I am describing. Until this lady ends up in this type of pain, and she will one day, of course she will be treated appropriately due to her holier than thou job of 'busting addicts' which will be exactly who she is when that day comes. Until then, she can be free from feeling any discomfort and sleep well at night knowing she's single handedly stopping doctors from treating their patients due to 'accidental' addiction that folks in her family have experienced. Be afraid, be very afraid. All this does is send people who can no longer obtain their legal pain medications down to the corner to the heroin dealer, because people will do ANYTHING to stop the kind of pain I speak of. If you doubt this, then your day has not yet arrived. Just find one person anywhere who suffers from chronic, dibilitating pain and you will know what I speak of. This lady is 100 times more scary than the worst addicts I've ever assisted in getting help. Her brand of help is aresting her way out of this 'problem', throw away the key then suffer or die, just as long as she can justify her job, and the government subsidized prison system that pays her.

"Wake up. Don't you see whats going on." I hear you, loved the article on the narcotics Prosecuter Bridget Brennan taking a hard line on the Medial Establishment for over perscribing pain killers.
I picked up the June 2012 issue of More Magazine a week after I read an article in the NY Daily news dated, Friday May 18th regarding Mary Richardson Kennedy's suicide.
So much for Law Enforcement to do now adays to have to get into the Medical establishment that all doctors take an oath to cause no harm. So what the heck were the doctors thinking that according to the Daily News, "Her doctors who were well meaning were trying mightily to find the correct mix of medications to help her and they failed repeatedly.", according to her sister Kerry Kennedy.
Granted I don't follow the Kennedy family and I'm not familiar with all the details however the more and more I read articles about people and drugs the more dismayed I become.
The article in More magazine was clearly focusing on persciption pain killers, however the American Citizen has become inindated with drugs. We used to be worried about street drugs, illegal drugs, dealers, influencing children, inner city, and wealthly suburbs. Now if your sad, something tragic happened, it looks as though the first advise given is to pop a pill. What the neck is wrong with everybody. Bad things happen, I'm not completely against medication, but really they are going to have to deal with it a some point, or be on cronic pain killers for the rest of their life.
It seams to me that no one is teaching people that pain is part of life, bad things happen. There are lots of complications out there and everyone's life is different. No two pains are the same. I'm not talking about constant therapy, but I do believe that the painkillers have side effects and the one most alarming is the one for depression that we all see on T.V. One, again, One of the side effects is it may cause people to consider suicide. Come on people. It's too bad the pharmaceutical establichment doesn't have to take that same oath to cause no harm.
I must also agree with Brennan's closing comments that "she won't consider myself a crusader on any issue because I'm always a little skeptical." There are gray areas. The answer is not always balck and white. Right and Wrong. My point is there is pain in life, physical and emotional. Physcial you try your best to fix the problem, emotional you go through the grieving process. It's part of living.

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