In Opioid Addiction Treatment Should Not Last a Lifetime, Percy Menzies resurrects old theories to tarnish buprenorphine-based addiction treatment. Methadone maintenance withstood similar attacks over the decades, and remains the gold standard for the most important aspect of treating opioid dependence: preventing death.
Menzies begins by claiming that a number of ideas that never had the support of modern medicine are somehow similar to buprenorphine treatment. Replacing beer with benzodiazepines? Replacing morphine with alcohol? Replacing opioids with cocaine? Where, exactly, did these programs exist, that Menzies claims were precursors for methadone maintenance?
Buprenorphine has unique properties as a partial agonist that allows for effects far beyond ‘replacement’. The ceiling effect of the drug effectively eliminates the desire to use opioids. Seeing buprenorphine only as ‘replacement therapy’ misses the point, and ignores the unique pharmacology of the medication.
Highly-regulated clinics dispense methadone for addiction treatment., and other physicians prescribe methadone for chronic pain. Menzies claims ‘it is an axiom of medicine that drugs with an addiction potential are inappropriate for the treatment of chronic conditions.’ For that reason, he claims, methadone treatment is ‘out of the ambit of mainstream medicine.’ The 250,000-plus US patients who benefit from methadone treatment would be amused by his reasoning. I suspect that the thousands of patients who experience a lifetime of chronic pain—including veterans with crushed spines and traumatic amputations—would likely NOT be amused by his suggestion that ‘opioids… were never intended to be prescribed forever.’ Those of us who treat chronic pain take our patients as they come—often with addictions and other psychiatric baggage. Pain doesn’t stop from the presence of addiction, neither does the right for some measure of relief from that pain.
Menzies cites the old stories about Vietnam veterans who returned to the US and gave up heroin, as evidence that prolonged treatment for opioid dependence is unnecessary for current addicts. But there is no similarity between the two samples in his comparison! US Servicemen forced into a jungle to engage in lethal combat use heroin for different reasons than do teenagers attending high school. Beyond the different reasons for using, after returning home, soldiers associated heroin with danger and death! Of course they were able to stop using! And that has to do with current addicts… how?
Teens in the US have no mainland to take them back. Their addiction began in their parents’ basement, and without valid treatment, too often ends in the same place.
Menzies refers to buprenorphine treatment as ‘a conundrum’ that has not had any effect on deaths from opioid dependence—a claim impossible to support without an alternative universe and a time machine. He claims that buprenorphine treatment is unsafe and plagued by diversion. In reality, most ‘diversion’ consists of self-treatment by addicts who are unable to find a physician able to take new patients under the Federal cap. In the worst cases, some addicts keep a tablet of buprenorphine in their pockets to prevent the worst of the withdrawal symptoms if heroin is not available. But even in these cases, buprenorphine inadvertently treats addicts who take the medication, preventing euphoria from heroin for up to several days and more importantly, preventing death from overdose.
Just look at the numbers. In the past ten years, about 35,000 people have died from overdose each year in the US with no buprenorphine in their bloodstream. How many people died WITH buprenorphine in their bloodstream? About 40. Even in those cases, buprenorphine was almost never the cause of death. In fact, in many of those 40 cases, the person’s life would have been saved if MORE buprenorphine had been in the bloodstream because buprenorphine blocks the respiratory depression caused by opioid agonists.
Naltrexone is a pure opioid blocker that some favor for addiction treatment because it has no abuse potential. Naltrexone compliance is very low when the medication is not injected, and naltrexone injections cost well over $1000 per month. Naltrexone may have some utility in the case of drug courts, where monthly injections are a required condition of probation. But even in those circumstances, the success of naltrexone likely benefits the most from another fact about the drug, i.e. that the deaths from naltrexone treatment are hidden on the back end. Fans of naltrexone focus, optimistically, on its ability to block heroin up to a certain dose, up to a certain length of time after taking the medication. But Australian studies of naltrexone show death rates ten times higher than with methadone when the drug is discontinued, when patients have been discharged from treatment, and short-term treatment professionals have shifted their attention to the next group of desperate but misguided patients.
The physicians who treat addiction with buprenorphine, on the other hand, follow their patients long term because they see, first-hand, the long-term nature of addiction. Menzies’ claim that ‘the longer you take it, the harder it is to stop’ has no basis in the science of buprenorphine, or in clinical practice. Patients often get to a point—after several years—when they are ready to discontinue buprenorphine. And while buprenorphine has discontinuation symptoms, the severity of those symptoms is less than stopping agonists—and unrelated to the duration of taking buprenorphine. Until that point in time, buprenorphine effectively interrupts the natural progression of the addiction to misery and death.
The physicians who prescribe buprenorphine and the practitioners at methadone clinics are the only addiction professionals who witness the true, long-term nature of opioid dependence. In contrast, too many addiction practitioners see only the front end of addiction, discharging patients after weeks or months, considering them ‘cured’… and somehow missing the familiar names in the obituary columns months or years later.