Home > All Posts > Common Cough Drug Helps Addicts More Than Methadone: Study

Common Cough Drug Helps Addicts More Than Methadone: Study

What do you think?


By Chad Skelton

October 17, 2008  Vancouver, Canada   A commonly prescribed drug used in cough medicine is more effective than methadone- and as effective as heroin itself – at stabilizing the lives of heroin addicts and reducing their use of street drugs, says a new study.

Since March 2007, the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI) has been prescribing 115 addicts in both Vancouver and Montreal with medical-grade heroin to see if they would fare any better than a control group of 111 on methadone.

The results, released Friday, concluded addicts on heroin stuck with treatment longer and had more success than the methadone group – no surprise, since similar studies in Europe found the same thing.

What was surprising however, is that a smaller group of 25 addicts given Dilaudid – a legal drug used as a painkiller and cough suppressant – fared just as well as those on heroin.

It was such a convincing substitute that all but one of those on Dilaudid told researchers they thought they were on heroin.

While giving addicts free heroin would require approval from Ottawa – a hard sell with a Conservative government already opposed to supervised injection sites – Dilaudid is simply an off-label use of a legal drug.

“To be perfectly frank, there is a stigma attached to heroin,” said Dr. Martin Schechter, principal investigator for the NAOMI project. “That would make Dilaudid particularly attractive in places where the concept of using heroin would be untenable as a public policy.”

Dr. Schechter said B.C. doctors have to get approval from the College of Physicians and Surgeons to use Dilaudid to treat addiction. Health Authorities would also have to pay for clinics to dispense it. But in comparison to prescription heroin, he said, the regulatory hurdles are tiny.

Researchers are already in talks with the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority about converting NAOMI’s research into a permanent drug-treatment clinic offering both methadone and Dilaudid.

Dr. Schechter said the clinic could treat about 200 addicts at an annual cost of about $1.5 million.

And while that’s not cheap, Schechter said the $7,500 per addict is a bargain compared to the estimated $50,000 an untreated addict costs the health-care and criminal justice systems.

The Naomi study found significant improvements in the lives of those on methadone, heroin and Dilaudid. Those in treatment spent less money on street drugs, committed fewer crimes to feed their habit and saw improvements in both their physical and mental health.

On average, methadone users reduced their spending on street drugs from $1,599 to $500 a month. Those on heroin or Dilaudid spent only $350 a month on street drugs.

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  1. October 19, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    This is a complicated study. And the story is misleading.

    First-Dilaudid isn’t a “common cold medicine” at least not in this country. It makes it sound like its some drug you can buy over the counter and is harmless. Any drug addict that has done Dilaudid can attest to it’s “potency”.

    Second-this study was done only on addicts who had FAILED SEVERAL ATTEMPTS AT METHADONE TREATMENT…which means that this wasn’t just a typical group of addicts. They were what we call “treatment resistant” so the comparison to methadone treatment in a normal population of opiate addicts is unfair.

    I actually attended a seminar in New Orleans last year about this at the Drug Policy Alliance Conference. It was very intriguing. Heroin treatment seems to be the “last ditch effort” treatment for these patients–a way to stabilize their use and keep them safe. With a supply with known purity and consistency these people were able to stop focusing on the “hunt” for the drug (and the money needed to buy the drug) and start focusing on things like housing, employment, and relationships with other human beings.

    If we stop looking at drug treatment as a “good vs. bad” or “black and white” or “cured vs. sick” then treatment with prescribed heroin can be looked at as a successful intervention for the treatment of a un-curable illness. It’s not the perfect solution-but there are benefits (reduced infectious disease, stability etc) and in treatment of any chronic illness any treatment that helps improve lives of the suffer should be considered.

    Kristan Hilchey

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