Category Archives: Drugs of Abuse

Using a Wrench Instead of a Hammer for Alcohol Withdrawal

I am seeing a 52-year-old male in my jail medical clinic who was booked yesterday on a felony DUI charge.  He says he drinks “a lot of beer” but denies having a drinking problem.  He is cranky and not really cooperative.  He does not want to be here.  However, the deputies tell me that he did not sleep much last night and did not eat breakfast.  I note that he has a mild hand tremor and a heart rate of 108.  According to the clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol–revised version (the most common tool used in the United States to assess the severity of alcohol withdrawal since 1989) my patient needs no treatment for alcohol withdrawal.  But this is wrong!  In actuality, my patient is experiencing moderate withdrawal and should be treated immediately and aggressively. 

 Using CIWA is like using a wrench to pound in a nail.  It can be done, but it is not really efficient or accurate.  A different tool (a hammer) could drive the nail much more quickly and effectively. CIWA is simply not the right tool to assess alcohol withdrawal.  We should be using something better.

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The Rules for Treating Benzodiazepine Withdrawal

Patients are dying in correctional facilities from benzodiazepine withdrawal!  This is not just a theoretical observation; this really is happening. This fact bothers me since benzo withdrawal deaths are preventable.  Benzodiazepine withdrawal is easy to treat!  It is certainly easier to treat benzo withdrawal than the other two potentially deadly withdrawal states, alcohol and opioids.   By far, the most common cause of benzodiazepine deaths is, of course, not treating it!    

So, is your facility at risk to have a patient die of benzodiazepine withdrawal?  To find out, compare your policies to the following Rules for the Treatment of Benzodiazepine Withdrawal.             

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Gabapentin for Musculoskeletal Pain?

At one of my recent jail medical clinics, three patients in a row requested prescriptions for gabapentin.  One was a patient newly arrived from the Idaho Department of Corrections to be housed at my jail due to prison overcrowding.  He had already been prescribed gabapentin at the prison for complaints of low back pain radiating to one leg and wanted me to continue it–forever.  The second patient was prescribed gabapentin by his outside practitioner for a boxer’s fracture that had been surgically repaired years ago.  The third was prescribed gabapentin at a previous jail due to “nerve damage” from an old gunshot wound to the upper arm (he had a large scar but no functional disability or decreased sensation).

Gabapentin prescriptions for nonspecific musculoskeletal pain have clearly become common in the community and in corrections.  These three patients represent only a fraction of the similar cases I see in my jails! I suspect that this gabapentin-mania is being driven by a belief that gabapentin is preferable to prescribing narcotics (though I would not think any of the three patients above would be candidates for narcotics).  Gabapentin, in fact, is often prescribed for musculoskeletal pain in my community first line—before NSAIDS and Tylenol, even—and many, like these three patients, subsequently believe that gabapentin is something they will need to take for the rest of their lives. 

The problem is that prescribing gabapentin for musculoskeletal pain is not evidence-based and (in my opinion) bad medicine.

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Skeletal Muscle Relaxant Guideline

Today’s post is a repost of an article I wrote previously about Skeletal Muscle Relaxants (SMRs). Concurrent with this article, I have added a Sample Guideline on prescribing Skeletal Muscle Relaxants to the Guideline Section of JailMedicine.

Personally, I think that skeletal muscle relaxers like cyclobenzaprine, methocarbamol and chlorzoxazone are over prescribed for acute and chronic musculoskeletal pain, both in the outside world but especially in corrections. The main reason for this, I think, is that prescribers misunderstand what muscle relaxers do. Contrary to their name, muscle relaxers do not relax muscles, at least as they are commonly prescribed. Muscle relaxers are sedatives, pure and simple, and should be prescribed with that fact in mind. Instead of telling patients (and ourselves) that “I am prescribing a muscle relaxer for you,” in the interest of full disclosure, we should be saying “I am prescribing a sedative for you.”

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My Thoughts on MAT in Jails

I recently ran across this news article on NPR (found here) about the problem of treating the large number of opioid addicted patients who are coming to our jails. There is a growing movement that all opioid addicted patients should be offered Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) while in jail–meaning one or more of three drugs: methadone, Suboxone or Vivitrol. The article does a good job in pointing out that this is a complicated problem. Having been on the front lines of this problem for many years in my own jails (and so having that great teacher–experience), I would like today to present my own thoughts on using MAT in jails. (MAT in prisons is a separate subject that I will address later).

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Reader Question: How does a KOP Policy Work?

Hi Dr Keller,

I work in the prison system in the UK. I wanted to ask you if the prisoners have in-possession medication in America or is it all supervised? 
If you do have in-possession medication, have you seen or thought of a way for the inmates to keep the medication safe i.e. lock box in their room (this then highlights a security issues as can store contraband etc. in  lock boxes? Is there a feasible and reasonable way that inmates who want to keep their tradable medication to them self and not fear being bullied by peers for them? 
Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!

After doing research in my current jail. The percentage of people who actually pass random meds check is currently 18%. Now obviously not all those that failed had them “pinched” from their possession and most certainly commonly abused meds such as trazadone and mirtazapine have been sold as “sleepers” on the wings. But for those people who genuinely get bullied for their medication or do in fact get them stolen what is the alternative measure to help them apart from to put them not in-possession and supervise them daily? 

If you have any ideas I would greatly appreciate it.


Thanks for the questions Dez! In the United States, most medications are passed in a supervised setting. “In-possession” medications are referred to as “KOP,” which stands for “Keep on Person.”  I’m going to use this term despite the fact that not all KOP meds are kept on person. Different facilities handle KOP medications in different ways, which I’ll get into. Here are the basics of KOP medications:

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Gabapentin in the News!

2018 has been a remarkable year for news and research into gabapentin, and the year is not even over yet! That is great news for those of us (myself included) who puzzle over the proper role of gabapentin within correctional medicine. On the one hand, if gabapentin is a useful drug for chronic pain, neuropathy, or any other medical condition, I want to use it properly. On the other hand, gabapentin is a ferociously abused drug within jails and prisons. It is both a sedating and euphoric drug that also can be hallucinogenic at high doses. When it is available within a prison, there is inevitably abuse of gabapentin (like snorting it), diversion of gabapentin (because it has large value within the correctional black market and so can be sold to others), and finally, there is inevitably coercion of weaker inmates by stronger inmates to acquire gabapentin prescriptions and give those prescriptions up to the strong.  Those of us in corrections have seen all of this and worse.

So any news of gabapentin, whether good or bad, can change the balance of this deliberation. If gabapentin is proven to be more effective medically, it may be worth tolerating the abuse. If it is found to be ineffective, there is no reason to introduce this stressor into the system.  With this in mind, here is a sample of the 2018 news on gabapentin. Continue reading

Random Thoughts on Alcohol Withdrawal

I had a lot to learn when I began practicing medicine in county jails. One of the most important of those lessons was how properly to assess and manage alcohol withdrawal. In my previous life as an ER physician, I had seen a few alcohol withdrawal patients and even one or two cases of DTs. I thought I knew what I was doing. Wrong-o! I was first unprepared for the sheer number of alcohol withdrawal patients I would see as a correctional physician. Alcohol withdrawal in jails is simply very common.

But I was also unprepared because much of what I had been taught about alcohol withdrawal was inaccurate or misleading. Nothing teaches like experience! After many years of treating a lot of alcohol withdrawal, I have gained some insights. Continue reading

Treating Heroin Withdrawal: Methadone, Suboxone and . . . Tramadol?

In my last JailMedicine post, I wrote that clonidine is an excellent drug for the treatment of opioid withdrawal. In response, several people have asked about methadone and Suboxone. Why not use one of those drugs instead of clonidine?

The short answer is that both methadone and Suboxone are excellent drugs for the treatment of withdrawal. However, both are much more complicated to use in jails due to DEA legal requirements and a much larger potential for diversion and abuse. If you are using Suboxone or methadone, great! I believe that clonidine is a better choice for most jails. Those interested in using methadone or Suboxone need to be fully aware of the DEA laws surrounding their use. Before you use one of these drugs, you must make sure that you are following the law. I know of two physicians in my hometown who were disciplined by the DEA for prescribing narcotics to treat addiction without registering. The DEA are not kidders!

By the way, Jail practitioners should also be aware that Tramadol has been used successfully to treat withdrawal, as well. Continue reading

Effective Treatment of Heroin Withdrawal in Corrections

Imagine this: You’re practicing medicine and a patient comes to you with an illness. You make the diagnosis and then say to the patient, “I can see that you are very sick. And there is a highly effective treatment for your condition that would make you feel a lot better. It’s simple and it isn’t even expensive. But, you know what? I’m not going to give it to you! You’re not sick enough. Come back tomorrow. If you’re sicker tomorrow—well, if you’re sick enough—I will treat you then. But not right now.”

Crazy, right? We’d never do such a thing.

But . . . the problem is, we frequently do that exact thing with our heroin withdrawal patients. I’m not singling out correctional medicine practitioners here. I think that, in general, heroin withdrawal is treated better in correctional settings than it is in the community. Nevertheless, it is a fact that heroin withdrawal is often not properly treated in jails and prisons. I have seen it.

I believe that there are four main reasons that some facilities do not appropriately treat heroin (and other opioid) withdrawal. Continue reading