Content warning: This article discusses addiction, chronic pain and suicide.

Standing near the Brandeis University sign by the entrance to campus, a small group of protestors held signs reading “We call on Brandeis to Fire Andrew Kolodny.” The Oct. 14 protest, which was named the “Kolodny Kills Rally,” criticized the Heller School for Social Policy and Management’s senior scientist’s stance on the prescription of opioids. Dr. Andrew Kolodny responded to the protest and statements made against his position on opioid prescriptions in an Oct. 19 Zoom interview with the Justice.

The group outside campus represented the Don’t Punish Pain Rally Organization, which protests “the neglect the chronically ill community/pain patients have experienced due to the new CDC guidelines, the DEA, and the FDA’s involvement,” according to the DPPR website

Kolodny is a vocal advocate for cautious prescription of opioids. While he is not against opioid use for treating pain at the end of life, intermittently or right after surgery, he is against the way doctors have been prescribing them for chronic pain. “We still prescribe more than any other country in the world,” he said. 

Members of the rally were a mix of individuals tied to the opioid industry and people with chronic pain.  

This is not the first time the pain advocacy community has called for Kolodny to be fired. In 2017, a group of patient pain sufferers and physicians wrote a letter to the University urging for his removal. The letter, which provided a list of reasons to cut ties with Kolodny, had 63 signatures. A handful of the doctors who signed the letter had lost their licenses or were facing criminal charges, Kolodny mentioned. 

According to Kolodny, pain patients on opioids who are angry are real and their emotions are genuine; however, this group of people has been manipulated by the opioid industry, Kolodny explained. The opioid industry spent years convincing doctors that they were not prescribing enough opioids and that fear of opioid addiction was out of proportion. Americans were put on high doses of opioids around the clock. 

Within a week of taking opioids, the body becomes psychologically dependent on the drug, Kolodny explained. Patients who have been taking opioids for years not only experience debilitating withdrawal symptoms but also fear the alternatives they may turn to if they do not get opioids from their doctors. “We really don’t have adequate access to addiction treatment in the United States,” Kolodny said. 

Many patients also believe that opioids are helping them. “What these patients don’t recognize is that the relief they experience when they are taking the opioid is really the relief of withdrawal pain,” Kolodny explained.  

Last year, Kolodny spoke with the Justice in more detail about the creation of the opioid crisis with regards to Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family.   

“What I will tell you about this protest is that the main person [Cindy Steinberg] who was there … is a professional pain patient who works for the opioid industry going back to the American Pain Foundation,” Kolodny said. The American Pain Foundation was an advocacy organization for people with chronic pain. In 2012, a U.S. Senate Finance Committee investigation revealed the Foundation was taking money from Purdue Pharma and other opioid makers. The investigation also uncovered that the APF was playing “down the risks associated with opioid painkillers while exaggerating the benefits,” according to a 2012 ProPublica article. Following the investigation, the APF was shut down. 

Steinberg is currently the National Director of Policy and Advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation. The Foundation also underwent investigation after some of its members were held under allegations of embezzlement in 2018.

In an Oct. 14 tweet, Steinberg shared photos of the rally and wrote “We want @BrandeisU @thejustice @TheBrandeisHoot @BrandeisAlumni to understand the #suffering #despair extreme #pain @andrewkolodny has caused #chronic pain patients.”    

Although Kolodny said Steinberg has ties to the opioid industry, he acknowledged that the rest of the protestors genuinely believe his stance causes harm to people suffering with chronic pain. Behind this sentiment, he said, “is a mixture of fact and fiction, or fact and conspiracy theory, even.”

One conspiracy theory Kolodny rejected is that he and Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing secretly wrote the Centers for Disease Control guideline calling for more cautious prescription of opioids. Kolodny is the executive director of PROP, an advocacy and educational group pushing for responsible prescription of opioids. From the formation of PROP, the group has focused on ensuring the FDA appropriately applies federal law within pharmaceutical companies, like Purdue Pharma. 

Going hand in hand with the conspiracy that Kolodny wrote CDC guidelines is the theory that Kolodny has a financial stake in Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction. “That has zero basis in reality,” Kolodny said. Following an influx of social media posts making this accusation, Kolodny acquired a letter from the manufacturer of Suboxone to confirm he was not financially tied to the company. Despite the letter that denied his financial ties, Kolodny shared that the accusations have not stopped. “I think one of the problems with conspiracy theorists is that they’re undeterred by facts,” he said. 

On a larger scale, many critics of Kolodny believe that he is responsible for an epidemic of suicides of pain patients who have been denied opioids. “With any good lie, there’s usually some kernel of truth,” Kolodny said. If an individual who is physiologically dependent on opioids is abruptly taken off of them, it is true that withdrawal can be so physically and psychologically debilitating that people feel as if they are going to die. 

However, the claims made against Kolodny with regards to suicide do not involve patients who are abruptly taken off opioids, Kolodny explained. For years, people have been prescribed opioids around the clock, meaning they have become dependent on the drug and their tolerance has gone up. As tolerance goes up, the patient’s level of function goes down and their sensitivity to pain increases. As a result, these people end up experiencing more severe pain. Kolodny explained that this phenomenon is called hyperalgesia. There is no evidence that giving opioids to chronic pain patients reduces the likelihood of suicide. On the contrary, it increases this likelihood because “you’re putting a lethal means in their hand,” Kolodny said.

Kolodny also said his critics have made antisemitic and homophobic comments toward him. Overall, Kolodny said he is not bothered by the sentiments protesters expressed toward him. “The individual that all of these people have all of this hatred toward is a fictional individual who may have my name and likeness but … it’s not me that they hate,” he said. What does concern him, however, is the possibility that these people who believe these conspiracies could potentially act in a violent way toward him or a family member. “I’ve had threats before, and I’ve had things mailed to my house that were strange,” he said. 

Kolodny referred to the movement countering his stance on opioids as a movement “trying to controversialize science.” He related this controversy to the fossil fuel industry’s attempt to undermine climate science. “There were climate change scientists who were similarly attacked and their universities stood by them, and I think that Brandeis would stand by science,” Kolodny said. 

In an Oct. 21 statement sent to the Justice, Heller School Dean David Weil wrote that “Brandeis is an institution that cherishes and protects academic freedom. As such we do not take actions against faculty members for their scholarly opinions or the direction of their research.”

Correction: A previous version of this article contained an incorrect spelling of “The Heller School for Social Policy and Management.” The spelling was corrected.