The Debate Over Drug Abuse Treatment: Methadone vs. Buprenorphine

Since 1971, qualified physicians in the United States have been prescribing narcotic medications such as methadone to treat opioid addiction. But this treatment hasn’t come easy, or without its share of debate.

The Methadone Controversy

Russia is one of several countries where methadone is controversial. Recently, members of a Kremlin youth group launched a protest outside a methadone conference, where a group of physicians and specialists were gathered to discuss methadone treatment for drug addictions. In Russia and other countries struggling over this debate, critics of methadone argue that it traps patients in their addictions for life, leaving them addicted to yet another drug.

Methadone is used as a gradual therapy for recovering heroin users, allowing physicians to relieve their patient’s craving for heroin and block the effects of opiates. With methadone, the gradual and mild onset of the “high” prevents users from gaining the pleasurable effects associated with heroin.

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However, opponents argue that methadone treatment substitutes one opioid for another, and fear of methadone being sold on the black market is a big concern. Often patients are left struggling with their addiction to methadone, causing their treatment to be lengthy or fail altogether.

In the United States, methadone treatment has become more regulated and widespread in recent years. An individual’s methadone treatment is often viewed as treatment for a disease rather than a poor moral choice. Therefore, treatment may continue throughout the patient’s life, allowing their bodies to be maintained with methadone and avoiding the symptoms of withdrawal altogether. While not a complete solution for a drug free life, methadone treatment has been found to decrease heroin related deaths and crime, and help individuals achieve greater control of their lives.

Buprenorphine and Suboxone

Today a new opioid medication is making its way into treatment facilities, doctor’s offices, and even homes. Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, which causes it to be less addictive than either heroin or methadone. The “high” produced by buprenorphine is less intense, and the side effects are less dangerous. In general, buprenorphine is safer than methadone, and it is easier for a patient to discontinue buprenorphine than to detox from methadone. The NIDA views buprenorphine as a safer, more acceptable maintenance drug than methadone for the treatment of heroin addiction.

A form of buprenorphine, Suboxone, has been rapidly gaining approval for the treatment of opiates. Suboxone contains buprenorphine and naloxone, an opioid antagonist which is to be taken orally. As long as it is taken by mouth as prescribed, the naloxone causes no side effects. If a user would dissolve the Suboxone and inject it in order to get high, the injected naloxone would cause sever withdrawal symptoms. This special formulation of buprenorphine and naloxone is considered safer than just buprenorphine because it so strongly discourages misuse.

The future of drug addiction treatment with Suboxone looks promising. With the support of the NIDA and the SAMHSA, and with further testing, there is hope that in the future this will be a widespread, successful treatment for drug addiction in the United States and other countries.

1. Schwirtz, Michael, Russia Scorns Methadone for Heroin Addiction The New York Times July 22, 2008
2. Blaine, Jack D., Buprenorphine: An Alternative Treatment for Opioid Dependence NIDA Research Monograph, Number 121, 1992
3. National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1999. Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment: A Research-Based Guide. NIH Publication No. 99-4180.
4. Marion, Ira J., Methadone Treatment at 40 Science and Practice Perspectives December 2005
5. Wunsch, Martha Buprenorphine: Balancing Access with Quality of Care (NIH) February 2008
6. Condon, Timothy P., and Clark, Wesley Buprenorphine in the Treatment of Opioid Addiction: Balancing Medication Access with Quality Care (NIH) February 2008

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