“I’m sick of going to funerals.”
If you ask Jordan Hansen why he changed his mind on medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, this is the bottom line.
Several years ago, Hansen was against the form of treatment. If asked back then what he thought about it, he would have told you that it’s ineffective — and even harmful — for people who use drugs. Like other critics, to Hansen, medication-assisted treatment was nothing more than substituting one drug (say, heroin) with another (methadone).
Today, not only does Hansen think this form of treatment is effective, but he readily argues — as the scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows — that it’s the best form of treatment for opioid addiction. He believes this so strongly, in fact, that he now often leads training sessions for medication-assisted treatment across the country.
“It almost hurts to say it out loud now, but it’s the truth,” Hansen told me, describing his previous beliefs. “I was kind of absorbing the collective fear and ignorance from the culture at large within the recovery community.”
Hansen is far from alone. Over the past few years, America’s harrowing opioid epidemic — now the deadliest drug overdose crisis in the country’s history — has led to a lot of rethinking about how to deal with addiction. For addiction treatment providers, that’s led to new debates about the merits of the abstinence-only model — many of which essentially consider addiction a failure of willpower — so long supported in the US.
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which Hansen works for, exemplifies the debate. As one of the top drug treatment providers in the country, it used to subscribe almost exclusively to the abstinence-only model, based on an interpretation of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous popularized in American addiction treatment in the past several decades. But in 2012, Hazelden announced a big switch: It would provide medication-assisted treatment.
“This is a huge shift for our culture and organization,” Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer of Hazelden, said at the time. “We believe it’s the responsible thing to do.”
From the outside, this might seem like a bizarre debate: Okay, so addiction treatment providers are supporting a form of treatment that has a lot of evidence behind it. So what?
But the growing embrace of medication-assisted treatment is demonstrative of how the opioid epidemic is forcing the country to take another look at its inadequate drug treatment system. With so many people dying from drug overdoses — tens of thousands a year — and hundreds of thousands more expected to die in the next decade, America is finally considering how its response to addiction can be better rooted in science instead of the moralistic stigmatization that’s existed for so long.
The problem is that the moralistic stigmatization is still fairly entrenched in how the US thinks about addiction. But the embrace of medication-assisted treatment shows that may be changing — and America may be finally looking at addiction as a medical condition instead of a moral failure.
The research is clear: Medication-assisted treatment works
One of the reasons opioid addiction is so powerful is that those in its grips feel like they must keep using the drugs in order to stave off withdrawal. Once a person’s body grows used to opioids but doesn’t get enough of the drugs to satisfy what it’s used to, withdrawal can pop up, causing, among other symptoms, severe nausea and full-body aches. So to avoid suffering through it, people often seek out drugs like heroin and opioid painkillers — not necessarily to get a euphoric high, but to feel normal and avoid withdrawal. (In the heroin world, this is often referred to as “getting straight.”)
Medications like methadone and buprenorphine (also known as Suboxone) can stop this cycle. Since they are opioids themselves, they can fulfill a person’s cravings and stop withdrawal symptoms. The key is that they do this in a safe medical setting, and when taken as prescribed do not produce the euphoric high that opioids do when they are misused. By doing this, someone significantly reduces the risk of relapse, since he doesn’t have to worry about avoiding withdrawal anymore. People can take this for the rest of their lives, or in some cases, doses may be reduced; it varies from patient to patient.
The research backs this up: Various studies, including systematic reviews of the research, have found that medication-assisted treatment can cut the all-cause mortality rate among addiction patients by half or more. Just imagine if a medication came out for any other disease — and, yes, health experts consider addiction a disease — that cuts mortality by half; it would be a momentous discovery.
“That is shown repeatedly,” Maia Szalavitz, a longtime addiction journalist and author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, told me. “There’s so much data from so many different places that if you add methadone or Suboxone in, deaths go down, and if you take it away, deaths go up.”
That’s why the biggest public health organizations — including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the World Health Organization — all acknowledge medication-assisted treatment’s medical value. And experts often describe it as “the gold standard” for opioid addiction care.
The data is what drove Hansen’s change in perspective. “If I wanted to view myself as an ethical practitioner and doing the best that I could for the people I served, I needed to make this change based on the overwhelming evidence,” he said. “And I needed to separate that from my personal recovery experience.”
Medication-assisted treatment is different from traditional forms of dealing with addiction in America, which tend to demand abstinence. The standards in this field are 12-step programs, which combine spiritual and moralistic ideals into a support group for people suffering from addiction. While some 12-step programs allow medication-assisted treatment, others prohibit it as part of their demand for total abstinence. The research shows this is a particularly bad idea for opioids, for which medications are considered the standard of care.
There are different kinds of medications for opioids, which will work better or worse depending on a patient’s circumstances. Methadone, for example, is only administered in a clinic, typically one to four times a day — but that means patients will have to make the trip to a clinic on a fairly regular basis. Buprenorphine is a take-home drug that’s taken once or twice a day, but the at-home access also means it might be easier to misuse and divert to the black market.
One rising medication, known as extended-release naltrexone or its brand name Vivitrol, isn’t an opioid — making it less prone to misuse — and only needs to be injected once a month. But it also requires full detoxification to use (usually three to 10 days of no opioid use), while buprenorphine only requires a partial detoxification process (usually 12 hours to two days). And instead of preventing withdrawal — indeed, the detox process requires going through withdrawal — it blocks the effects of opioids up to certain doses, making it much harder to get high or overdose on the drugs.
The first US-based study comparing naltrexone and buprenorphine found that once people get on either, they are similarly effective. But that comes with a major caveat: It was much harder to get people started on naltrexone than buprenorphine because naltrexone requires a detox period. So buprenorphine is, on average, more accessible and effective than naltrexone — although results can vary from individual to individual.
One catch is that even these medications, though the best forms of opioid addiction treatment, do not work for as much as 40 percent of people with opioid addiction. Some patients may prefer not to take any medications because they see any drug use whatsoever as getting in the way of their recovery, in which case total abstinence may be the right answer for them. Others may not respond well physically to the medications, or the medications may for whatever reason fail to keep them from misusing drugs.
This isn’t atypical in medicine. What works for some people, even the majority, isn’t always going to work for everyone. So these are really first-line treatments, but in some cases patients may need alternative therapies if medication-assisted treatment doesn’t work. (That might even involve prescription heroin — which, while it’s perhaps counterintuitive, the research shows it works to mitigate the problems of addiction when provided in tightly controlled, supervised medical settings.)
Medication can also be paired with other kinds of treatment to better results. It can be used in tandem with cognitive behavioral therapy or similar approaches, which teach people how to deal with problems or settings that can lead to relapse. All of that can also be paired with 12-step programs like AA and NA or other support groups in which people work together and hold each other accountable in the fight against addiction. It all varies from patient to patient.
Why medication-assisted treatment is not just replacing one drug with another
The main criticism of medication-assisted treatment is that it’s merely replacing one drug with another. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price echoed this criticism, saying, “If we’re just substituting one opioid for another, we’re not moving the dial much. Folks need to be cured so they can be productive members of society and realize their dreams.” (A spokesperson for Price later walked back the statement, saying Price supports all kinds of treatment.)
On its face, this argument is true. Medication-assisted treatment is replacing one drug, whether it’s opioid painkillers or heroin, with another, such as methadone or buprenorphine.
But this isn’t by itself a bad thing.
Under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it’s not enough for someone to be using or even physically dependent on drugs to qualify for a substance use disorder, the technical name for addiction. After all, most US adults use drugs — some every day or multiple times a day — without any problems whatsoever. Just think about that next time you sip a beer, glass of wine, coffee, tea, or any other beverage with alcohol or caffeine in it, or any time you use a drug to treat a medical condition.
The qualification for a substance use disorder is that someone is using drugs in a dangerous or risky manner. So someone with an opioid use disorder would not just be using opioids but potentially using these drugs in a way that puts him or others in danger — perhaps by feeling the need to commit crimes to obtain the drugs or using the drugs so much that he puts himself at risk of overdose and inhibits his day-to-day functioning. Basically, the drug use has to hinder someone from being a healthy, functioning member of society to qualify as addiction.
The key with medication-assisted treatment is that while it does involve continued drug use, it turns that drug use into a much safer habit. So instead of stealing to get heroin or using painkillers so much that he puts his life at risk, a patient on medication-assisted treatment can simply use methadone or buprenorphine to meet his physical cravings and otherwise go about his day — going to school, work, or any other obligations.
Yet this myth of the dangers of medication-assisted treatment remains prevalent — to deadly results.
In 2013, Judge Frank Gulotta Jr. in New York ordered a man arrested for drugs, Robert Lepolszki, off methadone treatment, which he began after his arrest. In January 2014, Lepolszki died of a drug overdose at 28 years old — a direct result, Lepolszki’s parents say, of failing to get the medicine he needed. In his defense, Gulotta has continued to argue that methadone programs “are crutches — they are substitutes for drugs and drug cravings without enabling the participant to actually rid him or herself of the addiction.”
This is just one case, but it shows the real risk of denying medication for opioid addiction: It can literally get people killed by depriving them of lifesaving medical care.
The myth is also a big reason why there are still restrictions on medication-assisted treatment. For example, the federal government still caps how many patients doctors can prescribe buprenorphine to, with strict rules about raising the cap. This limits how accessible the treatment is. A HuffPost analysis found that even if every doctor who can prescribe buprenorphine did so at the maximum rate in 2012, more than half of Americans with opioid use disorders could not get the medication.
That’s on top of barriers to addiction treatment in general. According to a 2016 report by the surgeon general, just 10 percent of Americans with a drug use disorder obtain specialty treatment. The report attributed the low rate to severe shortages in the supply of care — which can lead to waiting periods of weeks or even months.
The medications used in treatment do carry some risks
None of this is to say that the medications used in these treatments are without any problems whatsoever.
Buprenorphine is safer in that, unlike common painkillers, heroin, and methadone, its effect has a ceiling — meaning it has no significant effect after a certain dose level. But it’s still possible to misuse, particularly for people with lower tolerance levels. And there are some reports of buprenorphine mills, where patients can get buprenorphine for misuse from unscrupulous doctors — similar to how pill mills popped up during the beginning of the opioid epidemic and provided patients easy access to painkillers.
Naltrexone, meanwhile, can heighten the risk of overdose and death in case of full relapse. Overdose and death are risks in any case of relapse, but they’re particularly acute for naltrexone because it requires a full detox process that eliminates prior tolerance. (Although this would typically require someone to stop taking naltrexone, since otherwise it blocks the effects of opioids up to certain doses.)
But when taken as prescribed, the medications are broadly safe and effective for addiction treatment. For regulators, it’s a matter of making sure the drugs aren’t diverted into misuse, while also providing good access to people who genuinely need them.
The fight over medication-assisted treatment is really about how we see addiction
Behind the arguments about medication-assisted treatment is a simple reality of how Americans view addiction: Many still don’t see it, as public health officials and experts do, as a disease.
With other diseases, there is no question that medication can be a legitimate answer. That medication is not viewed as a proper answer by many to addiction shows that people believe addiction is unique in some way — particularly, they view addiction as at least partly a moral failing instead of just a disease.
I get emails all the time to this effect. Here, for example, is a fairly representative reader message: “Darwin’s Theory says ‘survival of the fittest.’ Let these lost souls pay the price of their criminal choices and criminal actions. Society does not owe them multiple medical resuscitations from their own bad judgment, criminal activity, and self-inflicted wounds.”
This contradicts what addiction experts broadly agree on. As Stanford psychiatrist and Drug Dealer, MD author Anna Lembke put it, “If you see somebody who continues to use despite their lives being totally destroyed — losing their jobs, losing loved ones, ending up in jail — nobody would choose that. Nobody anywhere would ever choose that life. So clearly it is beyond this individual’s control on some level.”
Many Americans may understand this with, say, depression and anxiety. We know that people with these types of mental health problems are not in full control of their thoughts and emotions. But many don’t realize that addiction functions in a similar way — only that the thoughts and emotions drive someone to seek out drugs at just about any cost.
Some of the sentiment against medications, as Hansen can testify, is propagated by people suffering from addiction. Some of them believe that any drug use, even to treat addiction, goes against the goal of full sobriety. They may believe that if they got sober without medications, perhaps others should too. Many of them also don’t trust the health care system: If they got addicted to drugs because a doctor prescribed them opioid painkillers, they have a good reason to distrust doctors who are now trying to get them to take another medication — this time for their addiction.
The opioid epidemic, however, has gotten a lot of people in the addiction recovery world to reconsider their past beliefs. Funeral after funeral and awful statistic after awful statistic, there is a sense that there has to be a better way — and by looking at the evidence, many have come to support medication-assisted treatment.
“I remember sitting there,” Hansen said, speaking to his experience at a funeral, as a mother sang her dead son a lullaby, “thinking that we have to do better.”