Understanding Opioid Addiction

We’ve come a long way in understanding opioid addiction; however stigma continues to hold us back.

That’s right. There’s an effective way to fight Opioid Use Disorder (OUD). It’s called Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). MAT is often called the gold standard of opioid addiction care. But much of the country has resisted it.

That needs to end now.

Why? Just ask Jordan Hansen. He’ll tell you. See, several years ago, Hansen was against MAT. In fact, he used to think it was ineffective — and even harmful. Like other critics, Hansen believed medication-assisted treatment was nothing more than substituting one drug (say, heroin) with another (methadone).

He doesn’t believe that anymore.

Today, Hansen not only thinks MAT is effective, but he believes it to be the best form of treatment for opioid addiction. To prove his point, Hansen now often leads training sessions for medication-assisted treatment across the country.

“It almost hurts to say it out loud now, but it’s the truth,” Hansen told Vox. “I was kind of absorbing the collective fear and ignorance from the culture at large within the recovery community.”

A Culture Shift

No more. Hansen isn’t alone either. Over the past few years, the deadliest drug epidemic in American history has led to a lot of rethinking about how to deal with opioid addiction. For addiction treatment providers, that means questioning the merits of the abstinence-only model, which essentially considers addiction a failure of willpower.

Take the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Hazelden is one of the top drug treatment providers in the country. It also used to subscribe almost exclusively to the 12 Step-based abstinence-only addiction treatment model. That all changed in 2012, when Hazelden began providing medication-assisted treatment.

“This is a huge shift for our culture and organization,” Hazelden chief medical officer Marvin Seppala said at the time. “[But] we believe it’s the responsible thing to do.”

And how.

Opioid Addiction

One of the main reasons opioid addiction is so powerful is that opioid addicts must keep using the drugs in order to stave off withdrawal. In order to avoid suffering, people must continually use opioids simply to feel normal and avoid withdrawal. (Heroin users call this “getting straight.”)

But medications like methadone and buprenorphine (also known as Suboxone) can stop this cycle. Since they are opioids themselves, these drugs can both fulfill a person’s cravings and stop withdrawal symptoms. Since they’re administered in a medical setting, these drugs are also much safer. Better still, when these medications are taken as prescribed, they don’t produce the same euphoric high. This closes the argument about drug substitution. It also significantly reduces the risk of relapse, as well as overdose.

In fact, various studies have found that MAT can reduce the mortality rate among addiction patients by half or more. If such an effective medication came out for any other disease, it would be a momentous discovery. So why not for opioid addiction?

Science vs Stigma

America’s growing embrace of MAT proves opioid addiction treatment is better rooted in science than stigma. It also proves our country is finally looking at addiction as a medical condition instead of a moral failure.

The research is clear: Medication-Assisted Treatment works. That’s why public health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the World Health Organization all acknowledge MAT’s medical value. It’s also why treatment experts often describe it as “the gold standard” for opioid addiction care. It’s about time America comes to grips with that fact.

If you or someone you love is battling opioid addiction, please contact ALEF. We’re here to help.

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Understanding Opioid Addiction - ALEF Opioid Use Disorder Clinic