Why Opioid Addiction Treatment Often Fails

By Percy Menzies, Guest Columnist

The two most contagious factors linked to addiction are accessibility of the drug and price. If there is easy access to the drug (and this includes alcohol), the number of people exposed is going to increase and a higher number will become addicted.

Every single epidemic has followed this principle. Let’s look at the present problem in the U.S. with the abuse and addiction to prescription opioids.

For decades access to prescription opioids was restricted to patients in acute pain and the only exception was terminal cancer pain. We did not have a major health crisis with opioids in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. 

Then in the mid 1990’s, articles and papers started appearing in the media and medical journals about the under-treatment of chronic pain. Respected clinicians and researchers made a strong case for using opioids to treat chronic pain. They insisted that opioid medication had little or no potential for abuse.  Clinicians were expected to treat chronic pain as the “fifth vital sign” and use opioids as a first-line treatment. The access door was thrown wide open and, for most patients, insurance covered the prescription cost.

When the alarm bells sounded years later and physicians cut back on prescribing, some patients who use opioids medically and many others who use them to get "high" found an alternative: heroin.  This illegal drug was relatively easy to obtain and the price was substantially lower than prescription opioids. 

Now heroin is becoming the gateway drug.  The potency of street heroin is increasing and there are many reports of heroin being laced with the very potent opioid fentanyl to increase the high. The DEA also tells us that hundreds of thousands of counterfeit pain medications made with illicit fentanyl are on the black market.

How do we fight this? Look at how we've reduced access to alcohol and cigarettes.

Access to alcohol is restricted by age, taxes on alcoholic beverages, licensing restrictions, campaigns against drunk driving and other measures. Policies to reduce smoking have also had dramatic results. The smoking rate in the U.S. has dropped from 50% to about 19% in the last twenty years. How was this achieved? By tightening access: no cigarette vending machines, no sale of single cigarettes, limits on places where people can smoke, and substantially higher taxes on tobacco products.

Look at addiction to cocaine. Cocaine was once glamorized as a drug that was only psychologically addicting. The abuse of cocaine and later crack cocaine skyrocketed in the 1980’s. In response, very harsh and discriminatory criminal measures were instituted, but with little effect. Some groups even advocated legalization.

The government promised effective treatments for cocaine addiction, including vaccines, but to date we have neither the treatments or vaccines. Yet addiction to cocaine is way down. Why? Because of reduced access. The countries growing coca came under increased international pressure and destroyed coca crops by spraying them with herbicides.  What would have happened if cocaine was legalized?

Legalization of a drug greatly increases accessibility and increases the number of people exposed to it.  The increased legalization of marijuana has made cannabis accessible to millions of people who never would have considered using it before. There are projections of marijuana becoming a $70 billion plus product in the next 5 to 10 years!

Accessibility undermines recovery.  The conventional treatment approach is to send patients away to residential programs for weeks and months.  The thinking is that behavioral and life skills learned during “rehab” will protect patients from relapsing when they return home. Does this really happen? Can patients successfully navigate the plethora of cues and triggers greeting them when they return home?  Will they be able to resist or ignore the ringing of the bell of Pavlovian conditioning?

It is not likely to work because of a well-researched phenomenon called Conditioned Abstinence or the Deprivation Effect. When a patient is sent away and deprived of access to a drug or alcohol, the addiction goes into an internal “incubator” where it is nourished by anxiety, exchange of war stories with other patients, and ruminating about drug use.

When the patient returns home to the familiar environment of past drug use, the fortified addiction powerfully reemerges from the incubator, leading the patient into relapse.

Repeated attempts at incarceration and long-term residential treatment have failed to curb high relapse rates, especially for opioid addiction.  This led to a wrong and highly controversial conclusion that addiction is a brain disease and the only approach is palliative treatment with other opioids, often for life.

The common and inappropriate analogy is to diabetes. Rather than looking at access as the contributing factor to relapse, patients are told they need opioids like methadone and buprenorphine to ease their withdrawal pains, much like diabetic patient needs insulin.  A clever but unproven theory called the “metabolic syndrome” was put forward to explain this. Patients are left feeling hopeless, helpless and resigned to their fate.

We need look no further than the U.S. soldiers that got addicted to heroin in Vietnam to debunk this theory. The addiction of some soldiers was spawned by cheap and easy access to heroin in villages and hamlets. Our country was in a state of panic about these soldiers continuing their heroin use when they returned home. There was even fear that their weapons training would be used to obtain the drug.

To everyone’s surprise, less than five percent of the soldiers continued using heroin when they returned home. Did these soldiers not suffer from the metabolic syndrome?  They did not continue their heroin habit because they had no easy access to heroin when they came back. If they had been sent back to Vietnam, many would have relapsed because they would have easy access again to heroin.

Compare this to the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have been able to continue the addiction because they have easy access to opioids and heroin in the U.S.

Palliation or substitution with methadone or buprenorphine has done little to blunt the heroin epidemic. We have not found a way to reduce access and indeed it is growing. A record quantity of potent heroin is flowing into this country from Mexico. The other two major producer countries, Afghanistan and Burma, are politically unstable and their poppy acreage has grown at alarming rates. It is only a matter of time before the heroin from these countries will start trickling in.

There are no easy answers. Unlike cocaine, products made from the opium poppy are essential for the treatment of pain. There is little we can do to reduce access to heroin. We need to seriously relook at the present treatment infrastructure. Addiction treatment often is episodic, non-medical, punitive, expensive and ineffective. Few patients are sent home on medications like naltrexone to protect them from relapsing in the first days and weeks after rehab. Medications like naltrexone and Vivitrol that give patient a fighting chance of long-term recovery are rarely used.  

We are woefully unprepared to deal with the present situation and the bigger problems to come. One thing is certain: legalization of heroin is not the answer. Decriminalization and standardized treatment with non-opioid drugs can be.

Percy Menzies is the president of the Assisted Recovery Centers of America, a treatment center based in St Louis, Missouri. He is a passionate advocate of evidence-based medical treatment for addictive disorders.

He can be reached at: percymenzies@arcamidwest.com

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.