Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Drugs and heartache

Methadone programmes allow registered heroin addicts to collect a daily supply of methadone from their local pharmacy. The methadone is usaully taken at the pharmacy. But in the case of days when the pharmacy is not open "takaways" are given. A programme operates in New Zealand but there is a queue to get on it.

What the programme offers is a chance to get clean by taking a reducing dose legally. It allows the addict to disassociate him or herself from criminal activity. It allows people to hold down a job.

In Scotland a two-year-old boy recently died from swallowing methadone stored at home. His two siblings are now in care. All three should have been in care.

"Drug and methadone dependency have reached epidemic proportions, with our social services left to pick up the pieces of government policy that lacks the will to tackle the issue head-on."

Some 20,000 drug addicts - nearly a third of the Scottish total - are on a methadone treatment programme. Figures from the General Register Office for Scotland show there were 80 methadone-related deaths in 2004, compared with 225 for heroin. The figures for 2003 were 87 and 175 respectively.

These figures don't tell us a lot about whether the programme is succeeding because the methadone-related deaths may not relate to people on the programme. The methadone may have been illegally obtained or sold by somebody on the programme.

In NZ there appears to be three outcomes of the programme. People actually get clean; the methadone becomes a crutch but it is still a better crutch than heroin; others continue to be involved in criminal activities which eventually catch up with them.

The Howard Penal Reform league says;
International research clearly demonstrates the short and long-term benefits of placing those with opioid dependence on methadone programmes as soon as addiction is apparent and help sought. Rapid access to treatment is shown to be beneficial even when initial or interim treatment is not comprehensive and involves less than optimal doses.

The risks with methadone programmes are real. But on balance the risks associated with an addiction to illegal heroin are worse. We need more legality. We need to get more people more quickly onto these programmes - not fewer.

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