Blog Post

Can Medical Professionals Safely Administer Heroin to Treat Addiction? The Evidence Says Yes

Jeremy Lesser

Heroin.

This word is arguably one of the most divisive, powerful, and attention grabbing in the entirety of the English language.

Overdose deaths related to heroin have surged over the past few years, yet most people struggling with addiction can’t access effective treatment. It’s time for us to get serious about something many Americans have never considered: heroin assisted treatment.

While the overwhelming majority of people who use drugs—even heroin---do not become addicted or struggle with problematic use, we know that about 10 or 20 percent of these people will. When someone is addicted to opiates they can develop physical dependence that causes the body to need these chemicals to avoid withdrawal.

As a society we tend to strongly promote abstinence, but one thought that never seems to arise is: what if we let those dependent on heroin safely use their drug of choice in a supervised environment?

Dissenters tend to oppose harm reduction strategies and believe there are no safe ways to use drugs. However, when heroin and other opiates are used to treat patients by a medical professional, they can be safe and effective for the patient. Yet the scientific evidence seems to support that very notion: the risks of heroin use can be greatly diminished under the right conditions.

Drug replacement and maintenance therapy have a long history of providing individuals struggling with problematic drug use with legal access to drugs that would otherwise be obtained through illegal means. More than a half dozen countries in Europe and Canada have implemented heroin assisted treatment (HAT) programs.

Under HAT, pharmacological heroin is administered under strict controls in a clinical setting to those who have failed in other treatments like methadone. Every published evaluation of HAT has shown extremely positive outcomes: major reductions in illicit drug use, crime, disease, overdose; and improvements in health, wellbeing, social reintegration and treatment retention.

Suddenly, we are left to wonder, are the ills of heroin use coming mostly from the illegality of the drug rather than the unfairly implied inherent evil nature of the drug itself?

There is no doubt that opiate drugs have the potential for abuse, and heroin addiction can be a tragic and painful endeavor. However, for those that are already dependent, why don’t we provide the safe environment and humane treatment that they deserve?

HAT allows people dependent on heroin to interact with healthcare practitioners and social service workers while reducing their involvement in the illicit drug trade.

It’s time to bring people who use heroin out of the shadows of our society and back into the light, where healthy practices and respectful treatment can help eliminate the disease, destruction, and devastation being caused by the drug war every single day.

Jeremy Lesser is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.

Photo via Flickr.

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Harm reduction