Here’s what Major League Baseball pitcher Tyler Skaggs’ overdose death trial missed about America’s opioid crisis

One by one, Major League Baseball players came to the witness stand. I took opioid pills, they said. All said they received the pills from the same person.

For some it was for the pain, and for others it was recreational. But for one of their own, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, taking opioids proved fatal. He died in a overdose 2019joining the half a million people in the United States who have perished in the same way over the past decade, and showing how the deadly epidemic swept the nation and into America’s iconic sport.

A jury in a federal courthouse in Fort Worth, Texas on Thursday found former Angel communications manager Eric Kay, 47, guilty distribution of counterfeit fentanyl-containing pills that led to Skaggs’ death; and conspiracy to possess pills with intent to distribute them. Kay faces at least 20 years to life in prison.

“The player’s testimony has been incredibly difficult for our organization to hear, and it is a reminder that too often drug use and addiction are hidden,” Angels president John Carpino said in a statement, noting. that the league began testing players for opioids after Skaggs. ‘ death.

“We are very grateful to the government and the jury for bringing this important case to the correct verdict,” said a statement released by Skaggs’ family through their attorneys. “We are relieved that justice has been served, even though today is a painful reminder of the worst day in our family’s lives.”

And while the lawsuit brought comfort to Skaggs’ family, medical experts who spoke to BuzzFeed News suggested that the courtroom’s stiff legal language failed to address the realities of substance abuse and drug use. drug. There, Kay was a “drug dealeraccording to prosecutors, and Skaggs and Kay were “drugs“, according to the defense lawyers. In truth, a deadly double game of inadequate treatment for opioid addiction and widespread counterfeit pills containing fentanyl made Skaggs’ death more likely, as it did for too many others.

“An important way to understand what happened in the case of this tragic overdose death of a professional athlete is to recognize it as another tragic example – albeit a very specific and highly publicized example – of what American society as a whole has suffered over the past two decades,” said Stephen Taylor, medical director of the NBA/NBPA Player Assistance and Drug Program. More than a million Americans have died of overdoses since 1996, the year oxycodone pills were first widely marketed in the United States.

According to trial evidence and court records, Skaggs died in a Hilton hotel room in Southlake, Texas, during an Angels trip to play Texas Rangers after snorting crushed blue pills emblazoned with “M/30” to look like real people. 30 milligram oxycodone pills. Skaggs probably thought or hoped they were real oxycodones, based on past texts with Kay. Former Angels players Matt Harvey, CJ Cron, Mike Morin, Cameron Bedrosian and Blake Parker testified that they once received pills from Kay.

Counterfeit painkillers like the ones that killed Skaggs instead contain the opioid fentanyl, which is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin. Illegal fentanyl is the leading cause of calamitous waves of overdose deaths nationwide over the past decade. Fake pills containing fentanyl have been linked to the death of Prince and Tom Smallwith the Drug Enforcement Administration warning in September of a “huge increaseby spreading them nationwide, worsening the already dire overdose crisis by reaching people who think the pills are real, or who had avoided injection drug use, and who don’t have opioid tolerance observed in people with extensive experience of drug use.

Skaggs and Kay had been using opioid painkillers for years, according to trial testimony and previous news reports. Skaggs’ half-brother testified that he tried to help the pitcher wean himself off painkillers after an injury in 2013 with half doses of oxycodone twice a day. Skagg’s mother testified that he tried to quit “cold turkey” — just quitting and enduring the agony of withdrawal — after the withdrawal didn’t work.

Kay, meanwhile, had been in and out of rehabilitation programs repeatedly according to his mother, ESPN reported. His last stay was 30 days in rehab after an overdose, according to reports, after which he returned to the Angels clubhouse. He was then trying to quit opioids, according to Parker’s testimony, while players were still asking him for pills. A lawyer for Kay did not respond to a request from BuzzFeed News to comment on his recovery program after he was released from rehab in May, nor was it mentioned at trial.

“Opioid use disorder is a chronic condition characterized by compulsive opioid use, where people somehow lose control of their opioid use, where they experience cravings,” said Brian Hurley, president-elect of the board of directors of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. . “Usually they suffer consequences.” Without commenting on the Kay trial, he added that the failure rate for people trying to quit opioids on their own without continuing treatment “is about 100 percent.”

The simple reason is brain biochemistry, where opioids create cravings and increasing tolerance that require larger or more frequent doses to avoid withdrawal. Typically, it takes years of recovery to stave off these changes, leading to relapses in drug use and a lifetime of effort. Only around 1 in 5 people who need the standard treatment for opioid use disorder – which involves long-term counseling as well as the use of safer opioids by prescription to carefully reduce their tolerances and managing cravings – actually gets it.

Major League Baseball has a treatment program policy for opioid use disorder, but it cuts players’ wages in half after the first 30 days of treatment away from the club, then completely after 60 days. Players who testified in the lawsuit can now be referred for treatment by MLB, which did not test opioids in 2019.

“What surprises me is that we don’t see any evidence of medical personnel involvement with these people” in the Kay trial, said Mishka Terplan, medical director of the Friends Research Institute and addiction medicine expert. “Addiction is a chronic disease, and chronic diseases require chronic management,” Terplan added, not just a month-long rehab or detox program, where people are treated medically through withdrawal, before putting people back in their old condition.

“There is no reason to expect an acute intervention to treat, let alone cure, a chronic disease. It is an old-fashioned, outdated, unscientific and illogical idea.

Although everyone is different, Taylor called it “disturbing” to read about a case, like Kay’s, where a person with severe opioid use disorder entered a drug treatment program. hospital treatment for a month, then returned to the same place she would have been. consuming and distributing drugs.

“Many of us in the addiction treatment field recognize that this is an alarmingly high-risk situation, regardless of what type of work the person is doing,” Taylor said.

The jury in Kay’s trial deliberated for less than 90 minutes on Thursday before convicting him.

“Unfortunately, the guilty verdict will not bring Mr. Skaggs back or take away the suffering endured by his family and friends,” Fort Worth DEA ​​Special Agent in Charge Eduardo A. Chávez said in a statement. . “What it does, however, is assert that justice prevails and that drug traffickers and facilitators, like Mr. Kay, will be held accountable for their reckless actions.”

After 50 years ofwar on drugs“In the United States, which has seen soaring overdose deaths and the deadlier, more smuggled illicit fentanyl widespread enough to invade Major League Baseball clubs, there is a certain skepticism on the effectiveness of criminal trials like the Kay case in deterring anyone from using opioids.

“We need to blame ‘someone’. So we blame the ‘dealer’ regardless of the fact that many of the people who are selling are also addicted,” Opioid Policy Institute director Jonathan Stoltman told BuzzFeed News.

“Who benefits from this mark of ‘justice’? It’s not like a criminal mastermind with distribution networks across Los Angeles has been taken out and the streets are safer forever. Everyone’s life is a little worse with this approach.

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