Six months ago, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani horrified drug treatment experts by announcing that all patients receiving methadone at New York City hospitals would be weaned off in three months. Citing his preference for "drug freedom," rather than a treatment which "exchanges one dependence for another," Giuliani advocated an end to the treatment that most researchers call the best hope for countless heroin addicts.
Facing strong and immediate criticism, Giuliani characterized methadone's advocates as "members of the politically correct crowd" and went so far as to call Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, who had recently advocated for increased availability of methadone "a disaster" (see http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/051/giuliani.shtml, http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/055/giuliani2.shtml, and http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/061/methadone.shtml for DRCNet news coverage).
But on Friday of last week (1/15) Giuliani did an about face on the issue, in the face of the realization that what he was proposing was, in his words, "maybe somewhat unrealistic." In fact, in the six months since the change in official policy, only 21 of the city's 2,100 methadone patients (the vast majority of the 36,000 city residents using methadone are in state and federally funded programs) got off the treatment. Of those 21, five relapsed back into heroin use, according to city officials.
Giuliani now proposes that the city aim to move people off of methadone without forcing them off. "Suppose" he said, "instead of 63% of the slots being for keeping people chemically dependent, 63% of the slots were for programs that were for drug freedom. And we reserve 10, 15, 20, whatever we have to for methadone for those people who need to have a transition and for those people where drug-free programs just can't work."
People close to the story say the mayor also paid attention to the experts. "Several people in the methadone advocacy movement, scientists and researchers and doctors, had written letters to the Mayor," says Holly Catania, a senior research associate at the Lindesmith Center in New York, "and apparently, from his own statements, he listened to them. I think the methadone community, especially the patient community, is relieved to hear him publicly state that his goal of eliminating methadone was unreasonable."
Learn more about methadone on the DRCNet site at http://www.drcnet.org/methadone/, from the Lindesmith Center's online library at http://www.lindesmith.org, and from the National Alliance of Methadone Advocates at http://www.methadone.org. See The Week Online's interview with leading methadone authority Dr. Robert Newman, online at http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/051/newman.shtml.