In ‘Addiction Treatment with a Dark Side’, Deborah Sontag of the New York Times shared her observations of the clinical use of buprenorphine for treating opioid dependence, warts and all. Readers of the Talk Zone know my bias—that buprenorphine/Suboxone is one of the only effective treatments for opioid dependence, and many patients are best-served by long-term, perhaps life-long treatment with buprenorphine. But I read the article the article with interest because I know that Ms. Sontag ‘did her homework’, including visiting a number of practices, speaking with a number of patients, and reviewing hundreds of studies about buprenorphine and Suboxone over the course of many months.
From my perspective, the article overstates the diversion problem. In my last post I asked if the fear of diversion should be a factor in whether buprenorphine-based medications become the leading edge of addiction treatment. I stated my opinion—that if overdose deaths don’t pull acetaminophen from pharmacy shelves and diversion doesn’t keep hydrocodone off the market, then diversion of buprenorphine deserves little discussion relative to the value of buprenorphine treatment for addiction.
With the wave of stories describing buprenorphine as ‘controversial’, every discussion of the medication seems to revolve around diversion. Do the numbers support the association? Deaths from Suboxone—deaths where buprenorphine was one of the drugs that caused death—amounted to several hundred over the past ten years, compared to 38,000 drug overdose deaths in 2010 alone. The magnitude of the difference is so staggering that it deserves repetition; 400 deaths in ten years, vs. 38,000 deaths in one year. The total number of deaths linked to buprenorphine over the past ten years is about equal to the number of people who die from acetaminophen– EACH year.
Diversion of buprenorphine is a complex issue. Words like ‘diversion’ and ‘overdose’ are loaded with so much emotion that one word seems to tell the whole story. A Google search of Suboxone brings up news reports such as ‘Suboxone found at overdose scene’, or ‘man arrested with cocaine, heroin, and three Suboxone tablets.’ The stories create an ugly image, with buprenorphine/naloxone as one more drug of abuse, found at ‘an increasing rate’, according to other headlines. But a superficial look at diversion yields a superficial understanding of the diversion problem.
Take as example a patient has not used illicit substances for 3 years while taking prescribed Suboxone, who relapses to heroin and dies from overdose. News stories will describe a scene littered with needles, heroin, and Suboxone tablets. That description creates a misleading impression of the patient’s history, and a misleading impression of buprenorphine. Even if the story provides more detail, the headline alone will fill the tweet—the ‘news’ of the modern era.
Is the nature of diversion, the reason for diversion, or the consequence of diversion relevant to discussions about the diversion of buprenorphine? If someone tries to hold life together by purchasing street Suboxone in a geographic region void of certified physicians, should that ‘diversion’ be included in the category as the sale of oxycodone?
What if the powerful mu-receptor blocking effects of buprenorphine have positive effects? What if studies found a lower rate of overdose deaths in communities with greater diversion of buprenorphine? Would that be relevant to the diversion discussion?
I do not know of any evidence that diversion of buprenorphine correlates with fewer overdose deaths. But many public health experts predict that encouraging ‘street use’ of naloxone would reduce overdose deaths, so expecting the same from buprenorphine, a stronger and longer-lasting mu antagonist, is not unreasonable.
Patients on buprenorphine awaiting elective surgery discover that the blocking effects of buprenorphine last for weeks. The same patients report that even after several weeks off buprenorphine, significant doses of oxycodone will relieve post-op pain, but won’t provide the ‘euphoria’ oxycodone used to provide. Patients who could never make a week’s script for oxycodone last longer than a day can often control use of opioid agonists after surgery if kept on a small dose of buprenorphine. Considering these findings, it is not unreasonable to wonder if there is a lower risk of death by overdose in people who ‘divert’ buprenorphine. Buprenorphine has a much longer half-life than oxycodone or heroin, so diverted buprenorphine intended for use ‘in between’ acts as a blocker during periods of active heroin use. Is it possible that traces of diverted buprenorphine in the bloodstream saves lives? If so, is that relevant to discussions about diversion?
The worst diversion scenario is if opioid-naïve people take buprenorphine or Suboxone and becoming addicted to opioids as a result, i.e. diverted buprenorphine serving as a gateway drug to opioid dependence. Nobody should take that situation lightly. But stories from the streets bring to mind biological programs where sterile males of an invasive species are released into the wild in effort to eliminate the invasive mosquito, lamprey eel, or fruit fly. What if the spread of buprenorphine functions as an ‘addiction moderator’ where the more buprenorphine in a community, the lower the rate of overdose deaths?
I realize that I am out on a limb— but as the saying goes, that’s where the fruit is. If buprenorphine diversion is investigated in a superficial manner, we will collect nothing but superficial results. The nature and impact of diversion of a medication with the potential to save as many lives as buprenorphine deserves a deeper level of understanding.