Heroin addiction is a growing problem in America. Many experts believe that the cause of the rise in addiction is due to an increase in prescription medication abuse. The second most commonly abused illicit drug, behind marijuana, is prescription medication, especially prescription opioid pain medication. This medication affects the brain similarly to heroin. When people can no longer easily get a prescription through their doctor for their addiction, they turn to heroin, which is often cheaper and easier to obtain.
The growing problem has led to exponential increase in the number of deaths and emergency department visits due to drug overdose, especially caused by opioid medication. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death, overcoming car accidents. Federal and state governments are working on legislation to stop this increase in heroin and opioid pain medication addiction. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts recently introduced new legislation to try to help this problem. However, many experts believe it might actual hurt heroin addicts rather than help.
Senator Markey's legislation expands access to the medication for treating heroin addiction, which includes drugs like Suboxone, methadone, and buprenorphine. Senators Diane Feinstein from California, John. D. Rockefeller from West Virginia, Sherrod Brown from Ohio and Mazie Hirono from Hawaii co-sponsored the proposed legislation.
The legislation allows trained medical professionals to increase the number of patients to which they can prescribe the treatment. Under current federal law, doctors can only prescribe this medication to a certain number of patients, which can lead to long wait lists for this type of treatment. The legislation also allows certain physician assistants and nurse practitioner to treat addicted patients with medication-assisted treatments, which is the first time such medical professionals would be able to provide this type of treatment.
Benefits of the Plan
Fewer than 40 percent of the 2.5 million Americans with an abuse or dependency problem to opiates receive medication therapy to treat their addiction. Several studies have found that this type of medication therapy helps opiate addicts overcome their addiction. The medication, including Suboxone, other buprenorphine-based drugs, and methadone, are also opioid medication. They affect the opioid receptors in the brain similar to heroin and other opiates, but they have a longer half-life, so they require less dosage for the same effect. This allows a person to go longer between doses, without feeling the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal. Because opioid withdrawal can be so uncomfortable, many people trying to overcome an opiate addiction relapse to reduce the feelings of withdrawal.
Supporters of the bill believe that restricting access to these beneficial medications causes people to continue to seek illegal and dangerous drugs, rather than seeking help.
The Problem with the Bill
Many critics of this type of medication treatment for opioid addiction believe it only replaces one form of addiction for another. Suboxone, methadone and other buprenorphine-based medications have a high risk of abuse, just like any other opioid medication. Patients have to be weaned off this medication, just like the initial substance to which they were addicted. Although they take less of the drug, their body still has a dependency upon the drug. These medications have unpleasant withdrawal symptoms as well, and the detox can actually last longer than that for heroin.
Although treatment using buprenorphine or methadone can help some people, it is not the solution to the problem. Typically, this treatment just prolongs the inevitable. It provides a helpful solution for some cases, especially emergency situations. However, it does not address the underlying emotional and psychological issues fueling the addiction. If programs and legislation for treating the growing heroin and opiate addiction problems continue to focus on medication rather than other treatment options, it might just end up creating more problems than it solves.