Dear Officer Zealous:
First of all, thank you for patrolling our streets and highways and your efforts to keep them safe. I know you have a hard job and I deeply appreciate your willingness to take on this responsibility.
However, please stop arresting my patients for whom I’ve prescribed methadone and buprenorphine (better known under the brand names Suboxone, Subutex, or Zubsolv). You mistakenly think all people taking these medications have no right to be driving, and you are wrong. I’m writing this letter to give you better information that you can use to do your job better.
Our nation is in the middle of a crisis. Opioid addiction is an epidemic, and too often its sufferers die of overdoses. Medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine works very well to prevent overdose deaths, and it’s been proven to help patients have a better quality of life in recovery.
I doubt you’ve been provided any information about medication-assisted treatment, so I want to help you learn some facts. Methadone has been around for fifty years and has a proven track record. It’s been studied more than perhaps any other medication, and we know it does a great job of treating opioid addiction. Buprenorphine has only been available in the U.S. for about 13 years, but has been used in Europe for decades.
With both methadone and buprenorphine, the proper dose of medication should make the patients feel normal. Patients should not feel intoxicated or high, and should not feel withdrawal symptoms. Methadone and buprenorphine are both very long-acting opioids, and they both give the opioid addicts a fairly steady level of opioid, compared to short-acting opioids usually used for intoxication. Therefore, using methadone to treat opioid addiction is not “like giving whiskey to an alcoholic,” as has incorrectly been asserted. The valid difference lies in the unique pharmacology of methadone. Opioid addicts can lead normal lives on this medication, when it is properly dosed.
In addition, both of these medications block other opioids at the opioid receptor. When a patient is on an adequate dose, she won’t feel euphoria from another opioid. Both methadone and buprenorphine deter use of other opioids for the purpose of getting high.
Treatment of opioid addiction with methadone and buprenorphine is endorsed by the CSAT (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment) branch of SAMHSA, by the U.S.’s Institute of Medicine, by ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine), by AAAP (American Association of Addiction Psychiatry), and by NIDA (National Institute of Drug Addiction. In study after study, methadone has been shown to reduce the risk of overdose death, reduce days spent in criminal activities, reduce transmission rates of HIV, reduce the use of illicit opioids, reduce the use of other illicit drugs, produce higher rates of employment, reduce commercial sex work, and reduce needle sharing. Medication-assisted therapy is also high cost effective.
Indeed, the current debate of government officials at the highest levels has been how best to expand medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine, not to make it less available. So please don’t do anything which may discourage opioid addicts from receiving life-saving treatment.
Over the years, many studies have been done on methadone and buprenorphine to see if patients are able to drive safely on either of them. In study after study, data show patients on stable doses of both medications can safely drive cars, operate heavy equipment, and perform complex tasks. Please see the list of references at the bottom of this letter if you wish to investigate for yourself.
I’m not saying, however, that patients on methadone or buprenorphine can’t become impaired. Impairment can occur if patients are given too high a dose of methadone or buprenorphine, which most often occurs during the first two weeks of treatment. For that reason, patients are warned not to drive if they ever feel sedated or drowsy.
Patients on medication-assisted treatment can also become impaired if they mix other drugs or medications with their methadone or buprenorphine. In fact, benzodiazepines (like Xanax, Valium, Klonopin) and alcohol act synergistically with maintenance opioids. They can cause impairment with smaller amounts of alcohol or benzos than expected. And of course, patients can still become impaired with other drugs, such as marijuana.
As you probably know, a urine drug screen isn’t adequate to detect impairment. The urine screen only tells you if the person has taken a given drug or medication over the last few days to weeks. Drugs are detectable in the urine long after the impairing effect wears off, so you must demonstrate the presence of drugs with a blood test at the time of the questioned impairment.
My family and I drive these roads too, and I don’t want impaired drivers on our highways any more than anyone else. I just think you have mistakenly targeted patients on medication-assisted treatment for the disease of opioid addiction.
I know you have formed bad opinions about methadone and buprenorphine patients from seeing both drugs misused on the street. I hate that, because you probably rarely get to see more typical patients on medication-assisted treatments.
The vast majority of my patients have jobs, families, and responsibilities that they meet, despite having this potentially fatal illness of opioid addiction. If you are fortunate enough to encounter one of my patients on a random traffic stop, please don’t give them a hard time. Please congratulate them on having the courage to find recovery from addiction, and tell them to do what works for them. In some patients, that’s medication.
Thanks for reading this long letter and thanks for all you do in the name of keeping our roads safe. If you want to know more about how we treat opioid addiction at our facility, please call our program manager at xxx-xxx-xxxx and we would be happy to provide you with an after- hours tour and lots of information.
Jana Burson M.D.
Member of the American Society of Addition Medicine
Board certified in Internal Medicine
Certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine
P.S. And please don’t attempt to intimidate patients from coming to get help for this fatal illness of opioid addiction by parking your squad car just outside our facility’s entrance. Some of these patients may have old warrants, but by stalking them where they come for help, you discourage people who want to escape addiction and want to better their lives. If you do park near us, you should expect a staff member to approach you with a smile, a cup of coffee, and a pile of information about opioid addiction and its treatment.
Methadone and Driving Article Abstracts
Brief Literature Review
Institute for Metropolitan Affairs
Roosevelt University 2/14/08
1. DRIVING RECORD OF METHADONE MAINTENANCE PATIENTS IN NEW YORK STATE
BABST, D., NEWMAN, S., & State, N. (1973). DRIVING RECORD OF METHADONE MAINTENANCE PATIENTS IN NEW YORK STATE. DRIVING RECORD OF METHADONE MAINTENANCE PATIENTS IN NEW YORK STATE,
When a comparison was made within specific age groups, it was learned that the accident and conviction rates were about the same for methadone maintenance clients as for a sample of New York City male drivers within the same period. The findings from other related studies discussed in this booklet are consistent with the results in this study.
2. The effects of the opioid pharmacotherapies methadone, LAAM and buprenorphine, alone and in combination with alcohol, on simulated driving.
Lenné, M., Dietze, P., Rumbold, G., Redman, J., & Triggs, T. (2003, December). Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 72(3), 271.
These findings suggest that typical community standards around driving safety should be applied to clients stabilized in methadone, LAAM and buprenorphine treatment.
3. Maintenance Therapy with Synthetic Opioids and Driving Aptitude.
Schindler, S., Ortner, R., Peternell, A., Eder, H., Opgenoorth, E., & Fischer, G. (2004). Maintenance Therapy with Synthetic Opioids and Driving Aptitude. European Addiction Research, 10(2), 80-87
Conclusion: The synthetic opioid-maintained subjects investigated in the current study did not differ significantly in comparison to healthy controls in the majority.
4. Methadone-substitution and driving ability
Forensic Science International, Volume 62, Issues 1-2, November 1993, Pages 63-66
H. Rössler, H. J. Battista, F. Deisenhammer, V. Günther, P. Pohl, L. Prokop and Y. Riemer
The formal assertion that addiction equals driving-inability, which is largely practiced at present, is inadmissible and therefore harmful to the therapeutic efforts for rehabilitation.
5. Methadone substitution and ability to drive. Results of an experimental study.
Dittert, S., Naber, D., & Soyka, M. (1999, May).
It is concluded that methadone substitution did not implicate driving inability.
6. Functional potential of the methadone-maintenance person.
Gordon, N., & Appel, P. (1995, January). Functional potential of the methadone-maintenance person. Alcohol, Drugs & Driving, 11(1), 31-37.
Surveys on employability and driving behavior of MTSs revealed no significant differences when compared to normal population. It is concluded that MM at appropriate dosage levels, as part of treatment for heroin addiction, has no adverse effects on an individual’s ability to function.