Here’s a fact that we’re going to continue to throw at you: nearly 50,000 people died in 2017 from opioid overdoses. It’s hard to wrap your head around that number, but try. Imagine the entire population of Niagara Falls, New York, or Galveston, Texas, or Olympia, Washington, dying in one year.
Now, imagine there’s a drug that could have saved many of these lives. Perhaps thousands. One survey of users in 2017 showed that 78 percent of respondents said they had an interest in reducing or stopping opioid use, so they want a way out of the addiction cycle. But the solution’s availability is limited due to burdensome regulations, stigma, and a lack of training.
That’s exactly the case with buprenorphine, a drug that curbs opioid cravings and treats withdrawal symptoms. It’s also FDA-approved drug and effective. Those who are addicted to opioids can use it long term, along with cognitive-behavioral therapy, to work toward—and stay in—remission. It’s called Medically Assisted Treatment, or MAT, and it’s proven to work. Like, by science. But it’s really, really hard to get. Here’s why:
- Federal regulation — In order to prescribe the drug, doctors (as in licensed medical professionals) must apply for a special waiver from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which requires 8 hours of training — that may not even be that useful — and can take months to process. Even when they do get the waiver, they are limited to 30 patients on the drug at one time. (So let me get this straight: There’s no waiver required to provide the highly addictive opioids that cause substance use disorder in the first place but there IS a waiver required to prescribe a drug that will help people struggling with opioid use disorder to no longer be dependent on opioids? Mmkay.)
- Pharmacies — Some pharmacies won’t carry buprenorphine because it can be abused if used in unintended ways. And in the absence of monitoring and treatment, the drug may not be an effective recovery aid.
- Stigma — “Many providers are just uncomfortable with buprenorphine and the idea of prescribing it to treat OUD [opioid use disorder]. So we have to help providers understand that addiction is a disease in need of treatment rather than a moral failing,” says Dr. Eric Ketcham, emergency physician and addiction specialist.
But when the drug is used in a supervised manner — such as this successful effort in Washington state jails — the results are unfuckwithable.
“Before prisoner John Lininger started the pills, all he could think about was heroin. Buprenorphine allows other thoughts the space to enter his brain.
‘It doesn’t have a feeling every time,’ he said. ‘It just keeps this feeling of not being encaptured.’”
This drug offers freedom to those with a disease. Shouldn’t they be able to access it easily?
Lemonada will be talking more about medically assisted treatment and other treatments options for opioid use disorder on Last Day, a podcast coming September 25. Subscribe now.