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College 101: How Effective Is Methadone?

I could use some last-minute help researching an assignment for my public health class. Last Thursday, everyone received a random notecard with a different public health crisis on it. We were each given a week to research the topic and present it in seven to ten minutes, plus a three to five-minute audience question and answer session.

I was given methadone treatment for heroin addiction, which is already an intense topic. I spent a few hours doing basic research, but it’s hard to find specific information about the drug. My roommate suggested that I ask the internet, since there’s likely to be someone who knows this stuff by heart already.

I want to present how it works and what alternatives there are in case it doesn’t work.

This question, while seemingly simple, isn’t all that easy to convey to laypersons. The opioid epidemic is no laughing matter. Your professor was absolutely right to characterize it as a public health crisis because that’s the consensus in the scientific community. In 2016, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 115 Americans died every day from an opioid overdose. Those figures are terrifying, especially for friends and family with a loved one struggling to overcome opiate addiction or dependency.

Heroin is probably the most notorious example of an opioid, but it’s certainly not the only one. The latest rage is abusing prescription painkillers--also opioids--that effectively replicate the psychotropic effects produced by heroin. Important for your purposes is knowing that Methadone can be used to gradually wean addicts off other types of opioids aside from Heroin.

Moving onto the specific details surrounding methadone utilization. Medical practitioners classify methadone maintenance as a substitution therapy. According to them, “it’s a treatment that enabled the individual who struggles with opiate addiction to effectively manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms.” This is crucial, because natural detoxification is time-consuming and physiologically agonizing for recovering addicts.

Another advantage to methadone is the fact that it’s a long-acting opioid, which means it fails to produce the instantaneous narcotic effects like its short-acting opioid counterparts (i.e., heroin, OxyContin, Percocet, etxc.). You should also know that some people consider methadone maintenance highly controversial. Opponents caution us about the risk of trading one substance addiction for another and therefore making negligible progress from a public health perspective.

It’s difficult to say the approach is universally effective or ineffective. The key takeaway is that it works for some proportion of addiction recoveries. Drug addiction and dependency can impact everyone differently, as every doctor, counselor, or interventionist will tell you. That’s what makes rehabilitation so challenging. In other words, methadone maintenance definitely isn’t the right choice for each and every patient. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives to explore. Other options include physician-prescribed Buprenorphine and Naloxone. You might even be surprised to learn that medicinal cannabis is being used as an alternative treatment for those severely addicted to opiates.

No single treatment approach is necessarily more effective than another. The best-case scenario for addicts is receiving a combination of treatments.

“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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