Heroin addicts can have longer lives with better quality, and they cost society less when they are prescribed heroin rather than methadone as replacement therapy, according to a major study from Canada.
Methadone is widely used in the United States and Canada as a replacement drug for addicts dependent on heroin or other powerful opioids. It is usually dispensed daily at government clinics. The drug stabilizes addicts and takes away their emotional swings as well as reduces their criminal drug-seeking behaviors. It is illegal in the United States to prescribed heroin for any medical reason, including as maintenance therapy.
For the new study some of the 12,000 Canadian addicts on drug replacement therapy who had relapsed at least twice in the past year were given heroin instead of methadone in the period 2005-2008. These participants were living in Vancouver and British Columbia. The research team compared this group to those on methadone replacement. Using a mathematical analysis, the research team projected that the lifelong cost per person for methadone treatment would be $1.14 million, compared to $1.09 million for heroin treatment, even though heroin costs more than methadone. The savings would come in reduced health care costs and expenses connected to crime and criminal activity.
“Opiate users commit less crime and have lower rates of health care and death while in treatment. The benefits in costs stem chiefly from its capacity to retain patients in treatment for longer periods than with methadone replacement therapy,” according to the study.
The researchers concluded that if you use heroin replacement therapy on 2,000 male addicts ages 26-35 years old, you would save $156,334,060 over their lifetimes, and for 2,000 females the same age, the savings would be $27,417,520.
The research team also found that people on methadone maintenance therapy lived 14.54 years on average once they began it. They spend 8.79 years in treatment and 5.52 years in relapse. In contrast, the research team projected that people on heroin therapy would live 15.45 years average, with 10.41 years in treatment and 4.05 years in relapse.
A previous study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 as well as several other studies done in the Netherlands had similar results.
The new study was done in conjunction with the North American Opiate Medication Initiative, and appeared in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.