- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2000

Anyone with a broken ankle is grateful for the invention of crutches, and anyone who loathes mice is likely to look favorably upon mousetraps. Those suffering from a problem normally welcome a solution. But heroin addiction is different. In this country, government bodies that claim to want to stamp out this scourge actually seem more determined to get rid of the cure.

Physicians know how to treat heroin addiction: with a medicine called methadone, which, when administered once a day, satisfies the user's cravings while allowing him to function normally. A 1990 report by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences found that of all the drug treatments known to man, “methadone maintenance has been the most rigorously studied and has yielded the most incontrovertibly positive results.”

What sort of positive results? Just stuff like reducing drug use, crime and disease among addicts, while boosting their ability to hold jobs and stay off welfare. Methadone, says Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, “is a real magic bullet.” It can be safely used for decades.

But the only people treated with more suspicion than people who use heroin are people who want to help them stop using heroin. Methadone is supervised like the gold in Fort Knox, subject to rules stricter than those for any other pharmaceutical drug.

Addicts can't get it from their doctors — they have to go to special clinics, which are burdened with an array of regulations on staffing, security and so on. And since these special clinics attract — surprise! — heroin addicts, not many neighborhoods greet them with brass bands. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani wants to get the city entirely out of the business of dispensing methadone, insisting that users should be able to abstain from heroin without relying on another drug.

Given the resistance, methadone clinics are scarce, and they tend to be in seedy urban areas far away from, and uninviting to, many middle-class users. The main achievement of these policies is to prevent addicts from getting help. For each one in treatment, experts say, there are another two or three who would get it if they could.

Hard-line drug warriors generally have no use for methadone. They complain that it merely substitutes one opiate for another — which is true and which is like saying that nicotine patches are as bad as cigarettes. Yes, methadone is a drug that many patients have to take for the rest of their lives to stay clean. But plenty of people take medications every day to alleviate ailments, from insulin to Prozac, without being verbally abused by Rudy Giuliani. Some heroin users can kick the habit without methadone. But that's no reason to abandon the ones who can't.

Even drug czar Barry McCaffrey, whose views do not always converge with my own, sees the wisdom of expanding methadone treatment. Not long ago, the White House drug czar was making disparaging claims about the effects of the Netherlands' tolerance of marijuana use, and I was suggesting that he wouldn't know how to pour water out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel. But McCaffrey is not always impervious to evidence. This week, he journeyed to Mayor Giuliani's fiefdom to argue that what we need is not less methadone treatment but more.

He made an incontestable case, noting studies which find that among heroin addicts receiving this medicine, good things happen. Heroin use typically drops 69 percent, cocaine use by 48 percent and crime by 52 percent — while full-time work rises by 24 percent. People who stop using heroin are also less likely to get AIDS, hepatitis and other nasty diseases. Treatment costs just $13 a day, and the government is likely to save far more than that for every addict it weans off heroin.

For government officials to rail against methadone is like a thirsty man rejecting water — irrational, self-destructive and indicative that the brain has shut down under stress. McCaffrey is trying to bring them to their senses by arguing that heroin addiction should be viewed less as a sin to be punished and more as a disease to be treated — preferably with the best means available.

Giuliani rejects such advice, contending that when it comes to drug abuse, McCaffrey has “surrendered.” The mayor, of course, is right. The drug czar has surrendered to facts and reason — unlike Giuliani, who is still fighting them.

What is clearly needed, as McCaffrey suggested, is for laws to stop getting in the way of patients who need a safe and effective drug and doctors who want to prescribe it for them. If addicts could get their medication from ordinary physicians and ordinary pharmacies, they would be more likely to go into treatment and more likely to succeed at it.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide