Reliance on methadone a dangerous game for both users and the Government

Whichever way you look at it, the Government’s increasing reliance on methadone to treat heroin addicts involves moral issues. Predominant among these is that the State is in effect cast in the role of drug dealer — conceivably for as long as the addicts live.

The uneasy relationship becomes especially problematic when users die of overdoses, having supplemented methadone with other street drugs.

Never forget how dangerous this is. When official figures show that in some areas a third of the people who die from drug-related causes have methadone in their bodies, put there by the taxpayer, and that this proportion doubled from 2006-08, we are on dodgy ethical ground.

Increasingly, it means the substance that is supposed to be a primary solution appears to be an intrinsic part of the problem. What methadone also represents is the transfer of personal responsibility for addiction away from the drug user. In this sense, the heroin substitute symbolises the cultural shift in modern drug policy: the addict is a victim who needs support and maintenance, rather than someone who should change their behaviour.

This official non-judgmentalism is interesting, especially when there is public debate about the resources devoted to the consequences of smoking, alcohol and overeating — which are not illegal. The merits of a humane approach to drug addiction are apparent. No one argues that methadone is not a useful part of the weaponry. It’s relatively cheap; it can stabilise the lives of addicts who shoplift or supply heroin to others; and of course, rather importantly, it allows the Government to say that it is doing something.

But what worries critics of methadone is not only its excessive use, but the lack of an exit strategy. In parts of the country there are addicts who have been taking it for decades. Even advocates concede that people are being kept on the drug for too long without any target to get them off.
All of which makes it troubling to hear that young offenders are being prescribed it, if only because, without any commitment to get them off drugs, they may end up “parked” for many years of dependency.

Professor Neil McKeganey, in his latest book, laments the lack of consensus about the goals of treatment, pointing out that although the majority of addicts want to be free of drugs, this is not facilitated by government policy. He wants to see a target limiting use to two years.

Methadone is a smokescreen for the absence of alternatives when it comes to problem use. There appears to be no new thinking, no initiatives, few open minds; and indeed little political will.
In a sense, the ubiquity of the heroin substitute is an admission that not only have social policies failed, but that we have no solutions for the consequences.

Source: Times Online 17th March 2010

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