Methadone program saves drug addicts, but then they start drinking alcohol

Addiction to heroin costs millions to all healthcare systems in the world. For the matter of fact, many people die because of overdosing, while others struggle to get out of the vicious circle of using drugs every day. Methadone programs have been around for quite some time and are effective, but, as this new study from the University Psychiatric Hospital and the University of Zurich reveals, effects are changing.

Methadone program helps people to get out of opioid addictions, but later a lot of then turn back to alcohol. Image credit: Todd Huffman via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Back in 1990s’, when methadone programs really took off, heroin addicts managed to achieve significant progress using methadone. They consumed less heroin, cocaine and even alcohol at the beginning of the treatment. However, although the treatment did not change much, effects are changing. Now, just a couple of decades later, more patients drink alcohol more frequently. In other words, people return to alcohol after some time of reduced consumption. Interestingly, this does not worry scientists that much, because methadone programs seem to be as effective as ever.

Participants of the study, 9,000 patients with a heroin addiction who underwent substitution therapy in the Canton of Zurich between 1998 and 2014, consume much less drugs than before they entered the program. Consumption of heroin halved in this period, while the number of frequent cocaine consumers shrank from 8.5 to 4.9 %. Alcohol consumption shrank considerably too, although later it started climbing back. In fact, scientists noticed that during the research period alcohol consumption between methadone program patients increased significantly.

Closer to the end of the research period almost one in four patients (22.5%) frequently consumed alcohol. That is bad news, because heavy opioid consumption damaged liver, infections such as hepatitis B and C are commonplace among people with opioid addiction. Many people die because of liver disease. Marcus Herdener, leader of the study, said that results of this research “reveal that there is still a major therapeutic need for treatment with regard to frequent alcohol consumption“.

Drug addiction is a serious condition and it has to be treated using such global programs. However, scientists have to make sure that these therapies do not cause additional damage. Reintegrating these people back into society should be a priority also, to prevent them from falling back into some other forms of addiction.


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