Giving Addicts Heroin More Effective Than Methadone, Study Finds

Treating intractable heroin addicts with a pharmaceutical version of their drug is more cost-effective than providing them with methadone, a common opioid substitute, a study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests.

Diacetylmorphine AKA pharmaceutical grade heroin (wikimedia.org)
The study analyzed data from the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI ), a 2005-2008 study that compared the use of diacetylmorphine (heroin) and methadone in street addicts. In the NAOMI study, researchers selected 250 subjects in Vancouver and Montreal who had been strung out for at least five years and had twice previously failed on methadone maintenance. Participants were randomly chosen to take either heroin or methadone.

Researchers in this study examined the cost-effectiveness of the two approaches in one-year, five-year, 10-year increments, as well over the lifetimes of the users. The study found that those using methadone generated an average lifetime social cost of $1.14 million, while those using heroin had a cost of $1.1 million, a difference of about $40,000 per user. An estimated 60,000 to 90,000 Canadians are addicted to heroin or other opioids.

"If you are on treatment, you're basically well-behaved," principal investigator Aslam Anis, a health economist at the University of British Columbia told the Canadian Press Monday. "When you're not taking treatment, for instance when you relapse, you're doing all kinds of bad things, criminal activity, getting into jail. The cost benefit is through an indirect effect," said Anis, through fewer robberies and other crimes, which have an adverse impact on victims and drive up criminal justice system costs.

"People who take (medical) heroin are retained on the treatment for longer periods of time and they have shorter periods of time when they relapse," Anis said. "And when you add it all up, you find that you've actually saved money."

"Methadone can be a very effective medication for some people, but it doesn't work for everybody with heroin addiction," said coauthor Dr. Martin Schechter, an epidemiologist at UBC's School of Population and Public Health. "And there is a subset of folks who go in and out of treatment and ultimately end up back using street heroin. They would be unlikely to be attracted into yet another methadone program," he said.

"But giving them injections of medically prescribed heroin in a clinic setting staffed by doctors, nurses and counselors gets them back into the health-care system. It also cuts the risk of infection with hepatitis C and HIV from needle-sharing. So diacetylmorphine is a medically prescribed heroin that we show in the study was more likely to keep people in treatment. And we know that keeping people in treatment is a very important predictor of success."

No matter what this or any other study finds, the Conservative Canadian government is opposed to harm reduction measures, such as safe injection sites and heroin maintenance therapies. Still, said Schecter, the government needs to face reality.

"The fact is that these people are taking heroin right now. They're in the back alleys in the Downtown Eastside, they're buying the heroin on the street, contributing to the black market and crime and violence," he said. "And they're not in any treatment and they're costing the system lots and lots of money. So our proposal says rather than having them do that in the back alley, why don't we attract them into a clinic where they will be in contact with doctors and nurses and counselors, we stabilize them by getting them out of a life of crime."

So, is anybody listening in Ottawa? Probably not, but the current government won't be in power forever.

Canada
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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