Drug courts and the “wonder drug”

keep-calm-and-watch-and-learnAnyone who reads this blog regularly knows that the evidence for Suboxone has been oversold and that it often does not address the real-world goals of most addicts or families. They want recovery–a restoration to wholeness and full participation in all spheres of life over the rest of their lifespan. The evidence base for maintenance drugs tends to focus on short term outcomes and on reductions in overdose, disease transmission and criminal justice involvement.

That said, I’ve made it plain that I’m not interested in taking options away from patients, especially well-informed patients.

Along comes this news that the new drug czar is going to require drug courts receiving federal funds allow the use of maintenance drugs. (Under the headline. “Wonder Drug” at Slate.)

It’s got maintenance treatment and harm reduction advocates whoop-whoop-ing. It’s got abstinence-based recovery advocates concerned.

The article begs a lot of questions. For example,

  • If “doctors and scientists view [these drugs] as the most effective care for opioid addicts”, why aren’t more doctors willing to prescribe it? And, why don’t they use these drugs with their addicted colleagues?
  • Why do the authors fail to acknowledge the longer term studies that find poor retention of patients on Suboxone? (Here, here, here, here and here.)
  • How did these “medications, when combined with other behavioral supports” become “the standard of care for the treatment of opiate addiction” when studies have found that people on maintenance medications do not benefit from additional behavioral therapy? (Here, here, here and here.)

However, as a policy matter, given the context within the field, this move makes sense.

Drug courts have sought more than reduced criminal activity. They’ve looked for the same kind of transformational recovery that families often seek. Maybe it’s appropriate for the feds to take these steps. I don’t have any strong feelings about it.

However, this is going to be a very good opportunity to learn a lot about the effectiveness of Suboxone over 12 to 24 months.

  • What will happen when you prescribe it to patients who are in a system that provides long term and robust recovery monitoring with enforced abstinence from illicit drugs and participation in behavioral treatment/support?
  • Will patients want to stay on the drug?
  • If not, will courts treat the decision to discontinue maintenance as non-compliance with treatment?
  • How will improvements in quality of life measures for these participants compare to other participants?
  • Will they experience the same benefits from the behavioral interventions that other participants do?

3 thoughts on “Drug courts and the “wonder drug”

  1. Suboxone is a “wonder drug’ when used properly, many addicts talk an inexperienced Dr into giving them high doses of Suboxone when only small doses are needed to get an addict through the withdrawal and craving phases. Opiate naïve patients who only have experience with vicodin and such weaker opiates don’t need to be dosed with Suboxone to the point of intoxication. Tight supervision is needed to make Subioxone a tool to freedom from active use. I had a fifteen year addiction to progressively stronger opiates ending with Fentanyl and if not for Suboxone and an attentive Dr I don’t know if I could have gotten clean from abusing medication and remain clean today.


  2. Buprenorphine continues to polarize & confound. But any dialogue on the stuff is good dialogue so thank you Jason! I have a video about bup on my Facebook page for Gammons Medical. It is long and dry video but it is a good overview of the basic attributes of buprenorphine.


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