I’ve heard the harm reduction versus abstinence -only debate about addiction treatment many times, not only at addiction medicine conferences, but also in my own head. In the past, I thought abstinence from all addictive drugs was the only true recovery from addiction. As I’ve aged, I’ve traveled far into the harm reduction camp, having seen people with addiction die from their disease when perhaps more could have been done to save them.
A wise mentor of mine once said try not to argue with people who aren’t actually in the room with you, so I’ve committed the debate to writing.
Following is an imaginary debate between two addiction treatment professionals. One professional believes harm reduction measures are worthwhile because they can keep drug users alive and healthier, even if they never completely stop using drugs. The other professional feels harm reduction cheats a drug user out of full and happy recovery, which she believes is seen with complete abstinence from all drugs.
First, they chat about needle exchange:
HR: I fully support needle exchange programs. They have been proven to reduce transmission of infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis. Why wouldn’t we want to help people avoid getting these potentially devastating diseases?
AO: Because giving out needles sends the wrong message. It says we are OK with people injecting drugs, and that we are willing to make it easier for them to do so. Appearing to condone drug use in any way sends the wrong message to young adults, who may be considering using drugs for the first time. Stigma towards drug users can be harmful, but perhaps stigma serves a good purpose if it discourages people from doing dangerous things like injection drug use.
HR: Studies do not show needle exchange increases the likelihood that people will start using drug intravenously. Easily available clean needles are not enough to convince a person to start injecting drugs. Besides, even if you have little compassion for the drug user, for every case of HIV we prevent with needle exchange, we save our society countless dollars in medical care. That’s just one disease. When you consider the health burden and medical costs of transmission of hepatitis C, it’s even more reasonable.
Even the ultra-conservative Mike Pence, the former Governor of Indiana and our future Vice President, changed his mind on needle exchange after an outbreak of HIV occurred in a rural community among people injecting opioids.
Besides being morally right, needle exchange makes financial sense.
AO: No, it doesn’t. It sends a message to drug users that we’ve given up on them. It says we don’t think they will ever be able to live without injecting drugs. In a way, it infantilizes them. By making drug use easier, we may cheat them out of trying to become clean and sober.
AO and HR move to the topic of medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction with methadone and buprenorphine:
HR: First of all, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is harm reduction only so far as all treatment should reduce harm. MAT is a good treatment in itself, and isn’t necessarily just a stop on the journey of recovery.
I fully support medication-assisted treatment. We have fifty years of studies that show people who are addicted to opioids are less likely to die if they enroll in methadone maintenance or buprenorphine maintenance. It is one of the most heavily evidence-based treatments in all of medicine, and it is endorsed by many professional agencies, such as the Institute for Medicine, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the World Health Organization, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
We have study after study showing how opioid addicted people have a better quality of life when on medication-assisted treatment with methadone. We have more information about methadone because it has been use in the U.S. much longer than buprenorphine, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002, after the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 was passed.
Opioid-addicted people enrolled in methadone treatment are more likely to become employed, much less likely to commit crime, and more likely to have improved mental and physical health. They receive addiction counseling as part of the process of treatment.
We think buprenorphine has the same benefits, though there have been fewer studies than with methadone. We do know the risk of opioid overdose death is much lower when an opioid addicted person is treatment with buprenorphine, too.
Because medication-assisted treatment is so effective, it should be considered a primary treatment of opioid addiction, and not only a harm reduction strategy.
AO: With MAT, opioid-addicted people may be harmed more than if they continue in active addiction. It is no different from giving an alcoholic whiskey. Methadone is a heavy opioid that’s difficult to get off of. The opioid treatment programs that administer methadone don’t try to help these people to get off of methadone, because they make more money by keeping them in treatment. These patients are chained to methadone with liquid handcuffs forever. It’s also expensive over the long run, and patients have to agree to many restrictions put on them by state and federal governments.
HM: Methadone and buprenorphine treatments are not like giving an alcoholic whiskey, because the unique pharmacology of these medications. Both medications have a long half-life, and when patients are on a stable dose, they feel normal all day long without cravings for illicit opioids. This frees them from the unending search for drugs that occupies much of their days. Instead, they can concentrate on positive life goals.
Also, even after an opioid- addicted person stops using opioids and endures the acute withdrawal, he will usually feel post-acute withdrawal. This syndrome, often abbreviated PAWS, can cause fatigue, body aches, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. It’s unpleasant. Many people in this situation crave opioids intensely. We think this occurs because that person’s body no longer makes the body’s own opioids, called endorphins.
Endorphins give us a sense of well-being, and without them, we don’t feel so good. When humans use opioids in any form, our bodies stop making endorphins. In some people, it takes a very long time for that function to return. In some cases, it may never return. We can’t yet measure endorphin levels in humans, so this is a just theory, but one borne out by years of observation and experience.
Methadone and buprenorphine are both very long-acting opioids. Instead of the cycle of euphoria and withdrawal seen with short-acting opioids, these medications occupy opioid receptors for more than twenty-four hours. It can be dosed once per day and at the proper dose, it eliminates craving for opioids, and eliminates the post-acute withdrawal, which is so difficult to tolerate.
We often compare opioid addiction to diabetes, because in both cases, we can prescribe medication to replace what the body should be making.
And yes, methadone is difficult to taper off of, but most of the time it is in the patient’s best interests to stay on this medication, rather than risk a potentially fatal relapse to active opioid addiction. Some patients are able to taper off of it, if they can do it slowly.
Do you think of a diabetic who needs insulin as being “handcuffed” to it? Do you think the doctor who continues to prescribe insulin is just trying to make money off that patient? Why is it wrong to make money from treating addiction, but not other chronic diseases?
AO: What about all of the former opioid-addicted people, now in 12-step recovery, who are healthy and happy off all opioids? Why are these people doing so well, even though they had as severe an addiction to opioids as the patients in opioid treatment programs?
HR: We don’t have all the answers to this question. One form of treatment, even medication-assisted treatment, won’t be right for every patient. Maybe the support that a 12-step group can provide got these people through the post-acute withdrawal. We don’t have much information about these recovering people, obviously due to the anonymous nature of that program.
If these people feel OK off all opioids, that’s great. They don’t need medication. But don’t prevent other people who do benefit from medication-assisted treatment to be helped with methadone, and buprenorphine.
Besides, not all opioid-addicted people want to go to 12-step meetings. Do treatment professionals have the right to insist everyone go to these meetings, even if patients don’t like them?
AO: Medications cheat patients out of full abstinent recovery. Methadone and buprenorphine blunt human emotions, and make it impossible to make the spiritual changes necessary for real recovery. Methadone and buprenorphine are intoxicants, and they prevent people from achieving the spiritual growth needed for full recovery. You keep these people from finding true recovery, and condemn them to a life of cloudy thinking from these medications.
HR: Various people assert patients on maintenance methadone and buprenorphine have blunted emotions and spirituality, but there’s no evidence to support that claim. How can you measure spirituality? If spirituality means becoming re-connected with friends and loved ones and being a working, productive member of society, then studies show that methadone and buprenorphine are more likely.to assist patients to make those changes.
Physically, studies show patients on maintenance methadone and buprenorphine have normal reflexes, and normal judgment. They are able to think without problems, due to the tolerance that has built up to opioids. They can drive and operate machinery safely, without limits on their activities. Contrary to popular public opinion, patients on stable methadone doses are able to drive without impairment.
However, if that patient mixes drugs like sedatives or alcohol with methadone, they certainly can be impaired. That’s why patients should not to take other sedating drugs with medication-assisted treatments.
People with opioid use disorder are far more likely to make significant and healthy life changes if they feel normal, as they do on medications like methadone and buprenorphine. If they chose abstinence, many times they feel a low-grade withdrawal for weeks or months, and this makes going to meetings and meeting life’s responsibilities more difficult.
Remember: dead addicts can’t recover. Far too many opioid- addicted people have abstinence-only addiction treatments rammed down their throats. Most of these patients aren’t even told about the option of medication-assisted treatment, which is much more likely to keep an opioid drug user alive than other treatment modalities.
Too often, people addicted to opioids cycle in and out of detoxification facilities over and over, even though we have forty years of evidence that shows relapse rates of over 90% after a several weeks’ admission to a detox facility. We’ve known this since the 1950’s, and yet we keep recommending this same treatment that has a low chance of working. And then we blame the addict if he relapses, when in reality he was never given a treatment with a decent chance of working!
Medical professionals, the wealthy, and famous people are treated with three to six months of inpatient residential treatment, and they do have higher success rates, but who will pay for an average opioid user to get this kind of treatment? Many have no insurance, or insurance that will only pay for a few weeks of treatment. For those people, medication-assisted treatment can be a life-saving godsend. It isn’t right for every opioid-addicted person, but we do know these people are less likely to die when started in medication-assisted treatment. After these people make progress in counseling, there may come a time when it is reasonable to start a slow taper to get off either methadone or buprenorphine, but first we should focus on preventing deaths.
AO: Given the time, money, expense, and stigma against methadone and buprenorphine, it should be saved as a last resort treatment. If an opioid-addicted person fails to do well after an inpatient residential treatment episode, then MAT could be considered as a second-line treatment. Let’s save such burdensome treatments for the relapse-prone opioid-addicted people.
HR: It seems disingenuous to claim stigma as a reason to avoid MAT when you are the one placing stigma on this treatment.
I could go on for many more pages, so let’s stop here. You get the idea.
In the past, harm reduction and abstinence were considered opposing views. I’ve heard some very smart people say this is a false dichotomy, and that in real life, these views are complementary.
I like this newer viewpoint.
Any form of treatment should reduce harm. If a patient achieves abstinence from drugs, then that’s the ultimate reduction of harm. Also, harm reduction principles can help keep drug users alive, giving them the opportunity to change drug use patterns later in life. As I’ve said above, dead addicts don’t recover. Let’s give people more choice and more opportunities to transition out of drug use, if that’s what they desire.
Let’s do a better job of working together in the coming year!