Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a well-known admirer of Nancy Reagan’s recommendation that kids “just say no” to drugs. It turns out he applies that advice not only to curious teenagers but also to people suffering from severe pain.
“I am operating on the assumption that this country prescribes too many opioids,” Sessions said during a speech at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa yesterday. “I mean, people need to take some aspirin sometimes and tough it out a little. That’s what Gen. Kelly—you know, he’s a Marine—[he] had surgery on his hands, painful surgery. [He said,] ‘I’m not taking any drugs!’ It did hurt, though. It did hurt. A lot of people—you can get through these things.”
While I’m sure we are all impressed by the White House chief of staff’s stoicism, his personal preferences have no bearing whatsoever on whether doctors should prescribe pain medication to people recovering from surgery or whether those people should take that medication rather than “tough[ing] it out.” Balancing the benefits of pain relief against the tiny risks of addiction or overdose, I think this is an easy call. But I am not a Marine, and I see no moral or practical value in suffering pain that can be relieved safely and easily.
To this day, I resent the fact that I was given nothing but acetaminophen after an appendectomy when I was 10. I vividly remember the postsurgical pain (although it was not quite as bad as the presurgical pain). At the time, I did not realize that more effective treatment was possible, but in retrospect it pisses me off that none was offered, presumably because someone was worried about turning a fifth-grader into a heroin addict. That kind of irrational stinginess is pretty common, notwithstanding Jeff Sessions’ confidence that “the country prescribes too many opioids.”
If we extend the attorney general’s medical advice to people who suffer from severe chronic pain—people who need opioids to get out of bed in the morning and have something like a normal life, people who may be driven to suicide when they are denied adequate medication—his attitude is not merely cruel but downright barbaric. As a college student with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome told me when I interviewed him for an upcoming Reason feature story about opioids, the right kind of pain medication can be “the difference between wanting to put a bullet in your brain and enjoying life.”
Sessions’ “tough it out” recommendation is similar to remarks he made after a speech on Tuesday night at the Heritage Foundation. “Sometimes you just need to take two Bufferin or something and go to bed,” he said.
Bob Twillman, executive director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, says Sessions’ comments show he has no idea what he is talking about. “That remark reflects a failure to recognize the severity of pain of some patients,” Twillman told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s an unconscionable remark. It further illustrates how out of touch parts of the administration are with opioids and pain management.”