Archive for the ‘Addicts behaving badly’ Category

Life Stories


I have half-finished blog posts about important topics like the refusal of jails to continue medication-assisted treatments during incarcerations, expanding access to buprenorphine and methadone treatment, and DUI arrests for patients on stable doses of methadone. And yet, today I feel the need for narrative.

Patients with addiction are fascinating survivors. They come from all backgrounds, and many have been through hell and back. Often, I’m amazed at how they make it through episodes of sheer destruction. Occasionally, I hear such weird stories that as soon as I get home, I write them down. I feel these stories should be recorded, for some reason. They are entertaining, they are peculiar, they are poignant, and they can be sad. These narratives describe the demolition of life, due to drug use, in an almost casual way.

Here’s one I just had to share, due to its weirdness. Names have been changed, but nicknames are the same. There’s some mention of drug use, of course, so don’t read this if you are triggered by such. However, the negative consequences are also described, so maybe that helps reduce any cravings.

“I remember my friend Billy. He had a snake pit. He’d go out on the river with a croaker sack and a light and catch water moccasins. He sold the venom, and made hat bands from the skins. He also robbed Indian graves.

“Mae and Billy lived together; she was his mama. Every year he’d root for the Crimson Tide University of Alabama, and she’d root for the Auburn War Eagles. U of A and Auburn would play every year around Thanksgiving.

“Mae was with her nephew Bob that year, watching the game on TV at his place, drinkin’ and smokin’ dope. Bob lived on a place near the Tuskegee National Forest. He grew tenth generation Pakistani/Afghanistani reefer there. People came all the way from New York for that reefer. It was so bushy that a pound went into a grocery bag. He had a barn, and would pull it up by the roots and hang it upside down in there. He fertilized that reefer with shit from his fighting roosters. He had Ruble Neck Red fighting cocks. He’s been in prison for a long time. Married a girl from Trinidad, had two beautiful children. Got on a bus with a suitcase full of meth, geeked out, got arrested, and got federal time of 46 years.

“Anyway, Mae was watching the ball game, raisin’ hell and getting’ drunk. Alabama was favored to win, and Auburn, who had been losing all season, actually beat Alabama. You never know.

“Now Mae and Billy lived in a little house in East Tallassee. Billy watched the game, got drunk, and passed out on their living room floor. Mae came back home from the forest, playfully kicking Billy, shouting “War Damn Eagle!”

“Billy kept a 410 shotgun in the corner of the living room, like the majority of people living in Tallassee do. Billy woke in a drunken stupor. He and his mama were alike and would get in your face and holler, and have big verbal altercations with no follow through. But this time he got up, grabbed the 410 shotgun, pulled the trigger and blew his mama’s head off. Duck shot, squirrel shot. Bits of hair and skull and brains splattered all over the wall. Billy set the gun down, called the Tallassee police, and said “Come get me. I just shot my mama’s head off.” He was sentenced to forty years and died a few years ago.

“He’s the one that turned me onto Mepergan red capsules.

“That boy would shoot anything. He used those jelly reds, Placidyls…they had a terrible taste. You’d pull that thick syrup out, try to mash the plunger, but it was so thick…

“One time Billy and I were cruising around, and he pulled the keys out of my car, trying to be funny. I lost power steering and skidded to a stop, mad as hell. I pulled him out of the car, and told him I was gonna whip his ass. So he pulls a knife and cuts me on my left arm, aiming for my head. I grabbed the knife and started chasing him. I was high on a combination of Budweiser and Placidyl and I got mean. My hand was bleeding but I wanted to catch him. Somebody grabbed a hold of me and took me to the hospital, or I’d have bled to death. Billy came to the hospital to see if I was OK. He thought he’d killed me.

“Billy didn’t carry a knife for a long time after that because I told him if I ever see you with a knife again I’m gonna kill you.

“We were both young then, about nineteen or twenty. You may think we were bad kids, but we weren’t. We got into our share of mischief but it was all in fun. Except that about his mama, but he was at least forty years old by then.

“I don’t think Billy meant to kill his Mama. He loved his mama.

“Sissy opposed his parole. She was one of a group of four people who stole gold from a gold show at the civic center. They were arrested at the Florida border. They looked suspicious, with their Uhaul draggin’ the ground. She flipped and got a little jail time.

“She was with two guys and another girl when they were caught. Benny the bondsman was the other girl’s father. He probably masterminded that gold theft. He was a shady character.

“When I was in jail, a guy got busted in Montgomery for trafficking coke, and it turned out he was in a car owned by Benny. Benny was actually a Montgomery police officer for years before he became a bondsman. I think he might have been in the Klan. Benny was 5 foot two and bald. My initial knowledge of him was through my ex-brother in law. Benny financed part of his cocaine business.

“My ex-brother in law was called Hatchet, because of his face. He always had a whole bunch of pretty women following him around with his Corvette and boats. I went to his houseboat once and there must have been a dozen beautiful women. I don’t care what anybody says, that money will bring them in.

“Anyway, Hatchet ended up in prison. They seized all his houses. He had a little bit in his mama’s name, but they ended up seizing millions of dollars of property.

“It turned out that he became the warden’s boy at Kilby. That means he did yard work for the warden, washed his car, stuff like that. But they found a big plot of marijuana close to the swamp by the wardens’ house. They couldn’t prove it was Hatchet that planted it, but…he couldn’t go back out to the warden’s house after that. He served five years of a fifteen year sentence and got out. I don’t know if he’s ever worked. He gambles a lot.

Hatchet’s the one who turned me onto IV cocaine. I hauled dope out of Miami a few times with him. He’s the one who taught me how to shoot coke. After I shot that cocaine for the first time, I got sick. I was runnin’ around in the back yard, puking and gagging. Me with this long hair, in the middle of the night. Hatchet says “Come on back in here, man. You’re gonna call attention to us, makin’ all that noise out there.” It was loud.

“Most of those guys I ran with back in those days are either dead or in prison. There’s a few like me who were lucky enough to find recovery.”

…and more from the same recovering addict…

“Uptight Miller was an old heroin addict form the Vietnam era, and he could play some blues on the piano. He worked at the Coates’ funeral home at night and we’d all go in there and do dope and drink. I assisted with embalmings. You had the needle thing that busted the organs and you suck all the organs out, poke the big needle and the hose in, and put formaldehyde in them.

“And of course anyone who works in a funeral home has to pass out in a casket at least once.

“Uptight went over there one night and a friend of his, Wade, was there and they were acting funny. I don’t know why, but Wade blindsided me and I turned around and grabbed him, and fell on the coffee table. It broke and I got that leg and bopped Wade in the head with it, and got out of the door. I got away.

“Well, I rode around for a few hours, and got to where we hung out up at the Big Bear shopping center, and Eddie Ray came by. He was a real badass. He could take down somebody twice his size. He just went crazy.

“He’s the one that was trying to wire some dynamite under his girlfriend’s hood and it blew his hand off. I don’t guess he liked her. He could still play the guitar by wrapping a clothes hanger around his nub and picked the guitar that way.

“Anyway, I told him I was at Uptight’s and he jumped on me. Well Eddie Ray went ballistic and said I’m gonna whip both their asses. He knew Uptight’s bed was beside the window. He went thru the window, grabbed him up and beat the hell out of him right there in his front yard.

“Eddie Ray, God rest his soul, died diving off a bridge into a creek. He jumped too far, landed on a stump, and broke his neck. It’s crazy for him to die by jumping in a swimming hole.

“Upright and I made up. I had a date with a girl named Rita, but I wasn’t really impressed. Then he went out with Rita, even though he was married. I don’t know what Rita did to him but it was a week and his wife was told to move out and he moved Rita in and they got married. Undoubtedly she did something for him.”I did not make up any of the above; I’m not that imaginative. It all came from recovering addicts.

Personally, I can’t get enough of the crazy stories of active addiction. Some people may call them war stories, and I guess that’s what they are. However, I think they can serve to teach us about the insanity of addiction, so long as we remember the endings, like the arrests, violent deaths, and fatal accidents.

Avoid Burnout


There’s a high turnover in the field of addiction treatment. That’s not good, because people with the most experience leave the field for more attractive work environments. I’d like to offer some ways of avoiding undue stress that leads to burnout.

Before we get to stress, it’s important to talk about why there’s burnout in this field. Many people think it’s all from patient behaviors, but that’s not the only reason.

True, it’s not always easy to work with patients in treatment for drug addiction. Addiction can cause all sorts of behaviors that can interfere with treatment, and trigger anger on the part of treatment providers. In patients with addiction, old behaviors don’t disappear overnight, and we have no right to expect them to do so. For humans, change takes time.

Program administrators can cause stress for program workers. Administrators who aren’t familiar with what happens on the front lines of addiction treatment may make unworkable changes to how treatment is to be provided. As an example, I once worked for an opioid treatment program who instructed a nurse to operate three dosing windows at the same time, by herself, to reduce wait time for patients to dose. I am not making this up. Obviously this was unworkable and unwise, yet the nurse was required to “prove” the unworkability before this lame idea was discarded.

Addiction treatment providers don’t make a great deal of money. Addiction treatment professionals earn an average income of $38,000 per year, with a range of $24,000 to $60,000 per year depending on experience, credentials and treatment setting.

Counselors at OTPs have tremendous workloads. State and federal regulations say OTPS can have no more than fifty patients assigned to each counselor. Even within that limit, there’s not enough time to attend to all patient needs. And besides time spent with the patients, the time spent on documentation and paperwork is overwhelming.

In the past, addiction counselors tended to be in recovery themselves, with their personal experience as their only credential. Now there’s a push for the substance abuse treatment field to become more professionalized. The pressure to prove competency causes ever-increasing paperwork to pop up like mushrooms after a rain. And the documentation forms change all of the time. Just as workers get used to one form, it’s changed again.

To paraphrase Terri Moyers, a world-renowned addiction treatment professional, the substance abuse field is addicted to documentation and they are in denial.

OK, so there are stresses working in the field. Maybe the field will improve someday. Until then, here are some ideas about dealing with burnout:

1. Take care of your physical health. We tell patients to do this, but are we setting good examples? Eat right, go to the doctor for routine medical health screens, get to the dentist periodically, and get enough sleep. We all know what to do.
2. Have a life outside of work. This is big. I have to remind myself of this one frequently. Don’t let work become your whole identity. When you are at home, is your mind also at home, or are you thinking about a work situation? Try to keep your mind and your feet in the same place.
3. Have a creative outlet. Right now, I make pillow covers out of recycled leather. I love it; I enjoy the process of creating, and it’s fun to give them as gifts, too. This last Christmas, everyone on my gift list got a pillow or two. My house is filling up again with pillows, so they can expect more pillows this year. I’ve even started selling them on ETSY, a website that sells arts & crafts
In times past, I’ve made quilts. I seem to be drawn to the textile arts.
What is your artistic outlet? It could be something you’ve never considered as art: cooking, decorating your house, or making home renovations, or something else.
4. Don’t take things personally. We all have bad days, and another person’s nasty response to you may have nothing to do with you. Make allowance and let it roll off.
5. Don’t stuff your feelings, either. If there’s a situation at work that you don’t like, don’t wait until you explode in anger to say something about it. Go to your supervisor or other appropriate person and state your feelings about what’s going on. You’re more likely to be heard if you’re calm and logical and not spew-y.
6. Don’t have unrealistic expectations. Drug addicts use drugs. Expect this to happen during the treatment of the disease. Relapse is never OK, but if the patient is lucky enough to live through it, help them figure out why it happened so they can avoid a similar situation in the future.
7. Do some kind of aerobic exercise if your physical condition permits. Besides health benefits, exercise can make a huge difference in my ability to handle stress. It doesn’t have to be heavy exercise; even going for a walk can reduce stress.
After I broke my leg last spring, I couldn’t exercise like I was used to, and I really missed it. I felt much better after my leg healed enough to do some of my normal activities.
8. Nurture your spiritual health. This doesn’t necessarily mean participation in an organized religion, although for some people it may. For me, anything that connects me to other people and to the God of my understanding is spiritual. I feel better and more centered when I regularly make time for prayer and meditation. Obviously people find different things that nurture them spiritually.

Despite the stresses, many of us prefer to work in the field of addiction treatment, for various reasons. For those people, working in the field of addiction treatment is an avocation, not just a vocation.

For me, I love to see the positive changes in patients’ lives, and to feel like I had some small part in that. In this field when addicts find recovery it isn’t just their lives that improve; families and then communities benefit, too. I didn’t see that when I worked in primary care.

I have the best job in the world.

“We will not regret, nor wish to shut the door on it.”


This was a tough blog to write. I want to thread the needle; I want to relate some solid help from 12-step recovery sources without angering some of my faithful readers who become angry with any mention of 12 step recovery, and don’t feel they help people with opioid addiction.

So you’ve been warned.

I know 12-step recovery isn’t for everyone. Some people tell of bad experiences with 12-step groups. And I know millions of people have been helped by these groups, too. So take what you like from this blog entry, leave the rest, and if you read something helpful, I’ll be happy. If not, try again next week because my topics fluctuate.

I talk to many recovering addicts who voice regrets about their past. The stories vary; the patients’ main theme is regret for behavior during active addiction. I understand those feelings, and feel tempted to tell patients how to deal with these feelings… but I don’t say anything, for fear that I’ll sound too “preachy.” Who am I to tell someone that they can examine past regrets, learn from previous mistakes, make amends when needed, and face the future with a clean slate? Isn’t that a conversation for a priest, imam, rabbi, or pastor?

Yes, it is. And yet, this person is in my office. Many times my patients tell me they feel unworthy to join or rejoin a religious community, and feel judged by such groups. Some of my patients’ perceptions could be colored by their own shame, but I fear many of them are accurate in their perceptions. Addiction is still regarded as a sin by some religious groups. Other groups do know addiction isn’t a sin but a disease, which can cause us to do and say things we regret, which are contrary to our values

Twelve step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have mechanisms for dealing with past regrets and ruptured relationships. These groups didn’t invent anything new. They use the same approach as other spiritual and religious groups, which are also sound psychological advice. However, the twelve steps provide a handy framework for handling regrets.

First, in Step 4, the recovering person assesses past behavior, called a “moral inventory” in recovery parlance. That inventory is shared with themselves (ending denial), another trusted person, and the god of their understanding. Patterns of behavior emerge, giving information to be used in steps 6 and 7, where the person becomes willing to give up old behavior and ask the god of their understanding for help with this.

In step 8, the recovering person lists the people he has harmed while in active addiction. With the aid of a sponsor or trusted spiritual advisor, in Step 9 the recovering person makes plans for how best to make up for past behavior.

Amends can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry,” to someone for past bad behavior, or amends can be more extended, like resolving to be fully emotionally present for loved ones.

Sometimes direct amends aren’t possible, if the person has moved away, died, or unable to be located. A more general amends can be made instead. For example, if a person shoplifted to support their addiction, it may be impossible to remember where and what was stolen. Part of the amends process is not to repeat the old behavior, but a more general amends may involve volunteering in the same community to help society in some way, like donating to a food bank or giving time to help a child in need.

If the recovering person feels guilty about stealing money, amends may include apologizing for the past behavior, and making a plan of re-payment. For example, I know a person in recovery now for over 16 years who sends a check for $25 each month to a governmental agency to whom he owned money after a criminal conviction. He may never get the full amount paid off, but he’s taking action to fix what he broke.

Recovering people can move forward by planning amends for past actions, but also should consult a sponsor or spiritual guide for help. For example, if an addict stole money from a drug dealer, it should not be paid back, especially if it puts the recovering addict at risk. In some situations, the best amends may mean having no contact with the other person.

Some recovering addicts have long lists of bad behavior to make amends for, and other recovering addicts’ lists may contain only a few people. Many addicts harmed only their immediate family, by not being completely emotionally available to their spouses or children during their addiction. Some recovering people feel just as bad about that as others feel about committing armed robbery for drug money.

Addiction taught harsh lessons at an exorbitant price, so we should learn from past mistakes.

The point of amends isn’t how bad the behavior was, but how the recovering person feels, and how he can leave behind guilt and shame and move forward.

Addiction, like some other diseases, affects behavior. Rather than living with regrets, recovery means facing regrets, learning from them, fixing what we can, and then moving on. It doesn’t matter what you call it: making amends, cleaning your side of the street, getting right with the god of your understanding, or some other term.

For Families: How to Sabotage a Loved One’s Recovery


It’s the holiday season, and many of us are blessed with loving and caring families, with whom we will share delightful hours of blissful conversation. However, for some addicts in recovery, families can be…challenging.

Many people in recovery have done things to their families during active addiction that they are not proud of, just as other family members have taken actions against the addicted person that are less than admirable. At holidays, old resentments can surface, leading to feeling of shame, guilt, anger and resentment on both sides.

For patients in medication-assisted treatment, holiday problems can be magnified. Not only do these recovering people need to deal with old hurts and past problems, but sometimes also have to hear other family members criticize a form of recovery that’s working well. Many family members feel like they have the right to criticize a recovering addict if he is on medication-assisted treatment with either methadone or buprenorphine.

Here are a few ways families can sabotage these recovering people:

1. Tell the recovering person that you don’t “believe” in methadone/buprenorphine. You can do this in a blunt and aggressive way, or you can be sneaky and make hints, saying things like, “people shouldn’t need drugs to get off drugs,” or something similar. You say this despite knowing next to nothing about methadone/buprenorphine. Your mind is uncluttered by any knowledge of the fifty-plus years of research showing how much medication-assisted treatment helps opioid addicts to recover.

2. Tell the recovering person that he is “weak” for needing any medication, and that the best way to defeat an addiction is “cold turkey.” Say this with a straight face as you drink a glass of whiskey and puff on your fifteenth cigarette of the day.

3. Tell him his opioid treatment center is just a legal drug dealer. Tell him there’s no difference between buying illegal opioids from a criminal on the street, and being prescribed a life-saving medication by a doctor at a treatment center that has been approved by the DEA, state and federal health and human services organizations. You have no idea that the treatment of opioid addiction is more regulated than any other medical service in the nation, but don’t let that stop you from saying something stupid. You will conveniently need to forget the recovering person gets counseling on a regular basis about how to make needed life changes at the opioid treatment program. Street dealers don’t usually offer this.

4. Tell your recovering family member that he’s not in “real” recovery. Tell him he’s still in active addiction because he’s prescribed methadone/buprenorphine. To look sincere when you say this, you will need to forget all of the positive changes you have seen in your loved one. He may have gotten a job, paid off old child support charges, gotten his driver’s license back and resolved all criminal charges, but don’t let all of those positive actions block your judgment of him.

5. Tell your recovering family member it’s “time to get off that stuff.” You can make fun of how long he’s used this crutch, even though you have no knowledge or training about the ideal length of methadone/buprenorphine treatment. After all, you haven’t let facts interfere with your judgment of his recovery process yet.

If you are also in recovery, you have additional ways of shaming your recovering relative. He’s using a different recovery path than you, so he must be wrong. You don’t care what his prescribing doctor recommended, because you know more than anyone else. You conveniently forget that line in AA’s Big Book that says, “We are not doctors…” and, “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.”

Not all people in recovery on medication-assisted treatment have harshly judgmental families. In some families, the addicted person’s recovery speaks for itself, and the whole family is encouraging and supportive. That’s the ideal, but in reality, patients on medication-assisted treatments often must have thick skins and learn how to handle negative influences. We usually think this means old drug-using buddies, but family can be just as destructive, only in different ways.

Now have a Great Christmas!

Drug Arrest for Doctor


Last week, news outlets in my area were all aflutter about a physician in a small town who was arrested for prescription medication fraud. It was alleged that he prescribed opioid pain pills to seven of his wife’s friends and acquaintances, none of whom were his patients, so that they could pick up the pills and deliver them to the doctor and his wife.

I’m not giving the name of the doctor, his wife, or the other people arrested, though you can get those if you click on the link below. I figure all of them are getting enough bad press without me piling on too. Besides, this bizarre situation has addiction written all over it. [1]

The SBI investigated this case for four months and finally arrested the eight involved people last week.

The doctor’s wife was a teacher, and she was accused of convincing coworkers at her school to become involved in the illegal activity. These people were teachers, teacher’s assistants, or administrative aides at the school. The illegal prescriptions were filled from late 2012 until early 2014, and totaled around 200 prescriptions and 25,000 doses of hydrocodone. According to the news reports, some of the people filling the prescriptions were using some of the pills, and delivering some back to the doctor and his wife. Others say they thought they were helping people get access to pain pills by using their names.

If this news report turns out to be true, I have a hard time believing the doctor and his wife would take such a risk unless one or both are addicted to opioids. No one is immune to addiction, as we know. And I doubt the people filling the prescriptions would participate in this mess unless they were getting something out of it, too. Claiming to have filled phony prescriptions just to help someone out…I call bullshit on that. These people could also be pill abusers or addicts, or maybe were getting paid to pick up the pills, but I can’t imagine anyone would do this highly illegal thing without some sort of remuneration.

This was a big news story because people were shocked that this drug ring (allegedly) involved a doctor and schoolteachers. But as we know, addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer. For too long, society has imagined that drug addicts are people lying in the gutter with a needle hanging out of their arm. In reality, opioid addicts today look like our next door neighbors.

I reacted to the story with sadness, and with curiosity. I was sad because I think it’s highly likely all the people who were arrested suffer from addiction, and are in need of treatment. But maybe they’ll get lucky, and will be mandated to treatment instead of jail.

I was curious because I wonder why the doctor prescribed only hydrocodone. Why not advance to a more powerful opioid, if you are going to break the law anyway? If you know what you are doing is illegal, why not splurge, and prescribe Dilaudid, or OxyContin? Or maybe he’s smart, thinking that higher powered opioids would call more attention to the scheme. But surely he knew this could not remain secret, with seven other people involved.

This story may illustrate, again, that we don’t do our best thinking in the midst of addiction.


Misuse of Suboxone: What Should We Do?

I’ve been discouraged by the number of people who write to this blog indicating that they abuse Suboxone by snorting or injecting. I know that’s a small number of people, compared to the thousands that have used Suboxone to get their lives back, and who are in excellent recovery, but it still depresses me.

What should the addiction medicine community do? What should the government do, if anything? What about law enforcement?

In this country, most law enforcement people see abuse of Suboxone the same as any other street drug. For them, it’s usually black and white. If it’s not prescribed for you, or if you’re using it in a way that’s not prescribed, it’s a crime for which you should be prosecuted.

Harm reduction proponents see the situation wholly differently. Since Suboxone is usually safer than other illicit opioids (note I said safer, not safe), even when it’s misused, why not allow the illicit use? In fact, why not hand out Suboxone tablets to anyone proven to be an opioid addict? If the addict snorts or shoots Suboxone, at least he’s not shooting heroin, a much more dangerous drug. True, that person is susceptible to medical complications from injecting and snorting, but this would be true for any other opioid. And some studies indicate that most of the illicit Suboxone is bought by addicts either self-medicating in order to stay out of withdrawal, or giving the medication a try before making the financial commitment to go to a doctor’s office for a legitimate prescription.

In a purely scientific world, I would agree with the harm reductionists. But that’s not the world we live in. We should be sensitive and alert to political forces that would like to annihilate our present freedom to prescribe Suboxone from a doctor’s office. Doctors – and their patients – have to be good stewards of this freedom, by taking whatever measures are appropriate to keep Suboxone out of the hands of illicit users.

 So what can doctors do to reduce Suboxone diversion?

  • Tablet counts and film counts. When I get a new patient, I have in my monitoring agreement that I will occasionally call them to go to their pharmacy (Some patients drive up to forty minutes one way to see me, so it’s more convenient to go to their pharmacy than to my office. Most pharmacists are happy to help.) for medication counts. If the count is short, either the patient is taking more medication than prescribed, or diverting it. Decreased diversion is the drug manufacturer’s big selling point for the films, rather than the tablets. They say that since each box has a lot number, if a patient has sold or given away some of their films, they can’t just buy replacement films to replenish before their count, like can be done with tablets. The lot numbers have to match. I can see where in theory that can be true…but I can also think of some ways to easily get around that, which I won’t post here.
  • Urine drug screens to make sure buprenorphine is present in the urine. Screening should be done anyway, to check for other drug use. Doctors doing urine drug screens should, of course, have buprenorphine on their test panel. In the past this was an expensive test, but not at present. My on-site test kits cost less than $10 when bought in bulk, and test for buprenorphine, methadone, opiates, oxycodone, THC, cocaine, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepines. (I have individual test cassettes for other drugs, when indicated.) Obviously, if there’s no buprenorphine in the urine, we have a problem.
  • Check the prescription monitoring program in your state. If the patient is getting prescriptions for other opioids, like morphine or oxycodone, it’s possible the patient stops Suboxone and uses these opioids between doctor visits. The other possibility is that they sell these other opioids, also not an acceptable situation, since it fuels other addicts’ addictions.

What can patients do to help keep Suboxone away from illicit users?

  • Don’t share your medication. Even if someone you care about is in withdrawal, help him to get care from a legitimate source. Don’t endanger him and yourself by sharing medication. And of course…don’t sell your medication. Duh.
  • Make sure you keep your Suboxone in a lock box, or other safe place. Not only will this keep your medication away from children, but also from addicts looking for opioids. Many patients new to recovery haven’t yet cut off ties with all drug users, and other addict “friends” may be looking for medication.
  • If you know of a Suboxone patient who’s selling medication, tell their doctor. You don’t have to call the police to get them into legal hot water, but you should do all you can to stop the illegal sale of any prescription medication. After all, a patient selling Suboxone is endangering your right to get convenient, office-based treatment.
  • Family members: please call your loved one’s doctor if any part of their Suboxone prescription is being sold or given away to other people. Because of confidentiality, we may not even be able to confirm that your loved one is a patient, but we can always take information from you. We may do pill counts or other things to confirm what you are telling us, and then take action.

What are the possible consequences of continued diversion of Suboxone? Some authorities are talking about changing the DATA 2000 law. Others are clamoring for buprenorphine to be re-scheduled into a schedule II opioid, which would disqualify it under DATA 2000 for use in an office. It would still be available at an opioid treatment program. And many OTPs (opioid treatment programs) do now offer buprenorphine.

I advocate for continued availability of office-based buprenorphine treatment, but now I believe some patients should start at an OTP, and transfer to office-based program only if they do well. Some patients are so strongly addicted to other drugs that they don’t do well in office-based treatment.

I now work at a wonderful opioid treatment program that offers both buprenorphine and methadone upon admission. I’ve switched a few selected patients to my office-based practice. This means I see them and write a prescription for them to fill at a pharmacy, no longer chaining them to daily OTP dosing. I still see them at regular intervals, usually every one to two weeks. These patients can still contract with the OTP for individual counseling and drug testing. This allows the OTP to have a wider variety of treatment options for their patients, gives me a stable patient, and gives patients who are doing well more freedom and treatment at a lower cost. Win, win, win.

I hope more OTPs will begin to offer buprenorphine as a real option to methadone, so that patients who don’t do well in office-based programs can still be on buprenorphine. And I hope they direct the stable patients to office-based programs.

Smuggling Suboxone

I was intrigued by an article I saw on my internet homepage. It was titled: “When Children’s Scribbles Hide a Prison Drug”

 This article describes unique ways Suboxone is being smuggled into jails. Law enforcement officials associated with both state and county jails from Maine and Massachusetts were interviewed. They say prisoners and their accomplices make Suboxone into a paste and smear it over the surfaces of papers sent to prisoners from their families. The article mentions the paste being spread over children’s coloring book pages, and under stamps. Suboxone films have been placed behind stamps or in envelope seams. Correctional officers now have to inspect material coming in the mail to prisoners much more closely.

 I had several thoughts. First, yet again, I’m struck by the creativity and cleverness of addicts. If only they could channel this energy in the right direction, amazingly good things could come to them, instead of the continued hardships brought by addiction.

 Then I felt sad that such actions described in the article would taint the reputation of a medication that has the potential to save lives, when used appropriately. Such illicit use of Suboxone gives ammunition to those who would prefer that office-based treatment with Suboxone didn’t exist.

 Then I wondered, how many of these prisoners have a legitimate prescription for Suboxone, but are denied their medication by prison officials? How many are legitimate patients of methadone clinics, also denied their medication while imprisoned, who know that Suboxone will alleviate some of the opioid withdrawal they are feeling? How many of these people are addicted to opioids, not in any kind of treatment, but who know Suboxone will treat their withdrawals?

At least one study supports the idea that many people use Suboxone illicitly not to get high, but to prevent withdrawal. Dr. Schuman-Olivier studied 78 opioid addicts entering treatment. Nearly half said they had used Suboxone illicitly prior to entering treatment. Of these people, 90% said they used to prevent withdrawal symptoms. These addicts also said they used Suboxone illicitly to treat pain and to ease depression.

Many law enforcement personnel and members of the legal community have strong biases against medication-assisted treatments. They don’t understand that addiction is a disease, and that methadone and buprenorphine are legitimate, evidence-based treatments. They have difficulty letting go of their idea that addiction is a choice that deserves blame, and have a punitive stance towards addicts. They have low opinions of addicts who are using drugs, but often have no better opinion of a recovering addict who has sought treatment and is doing well on replacement medications, like methadone or buprenorphine.

 But no matter what law enforcement personnel think they know, when they deny prescribed, life-saving medications, I believe they’re practicing medicine without a license.

The article mentions one woman who, with the aid of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, sued because her Suboxone treatment had not been continued while she was in jailed for a traffic violation. She settled out of court, but her lawyer made the excellent point that if inmates are denied their medications, they will try unlawful means to get it.

Other patients and their families have brought successful lawsuits against the jail facilities. In at least two cases, in the same Orange County, Florida jail, patient/prisoners were allowed to go through withdrawal for so long that they died. The estate of one person won a three million dollar judgment against the county. (1, 2)

I’m glad to see these lawsuits. I’ve heard appalling stories from many methadone patients, who were denied their medication while incarcerated. I’ve heard tales of jailers taunting these prisoners, when they became sick. There is no defense for such cruelty.

Orange County now works with local methadone clinics. If a prisoner is a current patient of a clinic, his clinic will send a week’s worth of medication in a locked box via courier. Nurses at the jail have the key to the box, and administer each day’s dose. The jail doctor consults with the medical director at the methadone clinic. Prisoners still have to pay out of pocket to get the medication, so the only cost to the jail is the time required for personnel to administer the medication. It’s certainly much cheaper than paying three million to the estate of a dead prisoner, not to mention much more humane.

I wish the county jails around the methadone clinic where I work would approach the problem of opioid addiction and treatment in a collaborative way. Sadly, only seven state prison systems offer medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine.

Rikers Island, in New York City, gives us another example of how such a system could work. There, opioid-addicted prisoners charged with misdemeanors or low grade felonies can be enrolled in a program known as KEEP (Key Extended Entry Program). This program treats opioid addicts with methadone and counseling. Upon release from Rikers Island, these patients are referred to methadone treatment centers in the community. Seventy-six percent have followed through with their treatment, post-release. The results of this program show significant reduction in reincarceration and significant reduction in criminal activity. (3)

Drug courts trying to save money would be well-advised to look at the Rikers Island program. Studies have shown a cost savings of at least four dollars for every one dollar spent on methadone treatment. This money is saved because methadone patients require fewer days of hospitalization and other healthcare costs, and also because of reduction in criminal activity and incarceration costs. (3, 4)

I know from comments written to this blog that there are many more people abusing Suboxone than I previously imagined. For sure, some of the prisoners getting smuggled Suboxone are misusing it. But I don’t think the majority are using for anything other than prevention of withdrawal, since they are usually not offered any other effective treatment for this medical condition.

  1. “Outrageous: the death of Susan Bennett raises serious questions about the competence and quality of the jail’s nursing staff” Orlando Sentinel, editorial, March 27, 1998.
  2. Doris Bloodsworth, “Inmate begged for methadone” Orlando Sentinel July 12, 2001.
  3. Par`rino, Mark, “Methadone Treatment in Jail,” American Jails, Vol: 14, 2000, issue 2, pp 9-12.
  4. California Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, 2004, California drug and alcohol treatment assessment (CALDATA) California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment (CALDATA), 1991-1993 [Computer File]. ICPSR02295-v2. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2008-10-07. doi:10.3886/ICPSR02295



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