Buprenorphine, called bupe for short, is a opiate drug produced by Reckitt Benckiser that was originally meant to treat patients addicted to other, more dangerous, opiod medications like methadone or heroin. Sold in the form of Suboxone and Subutex, buprenorphine attaches to the brain’s opioid receptors, but it is much more mild and longer-lasting, thus diminishing the effects of highs and lows. It also diminishes the effects of other opioid’s use, thereby helping patients make the switch.

In a recent highly controversial New York Times article, many are claiming that buprenorphine is a miracle prescription, while others are decrying its risks as a street drug. 

Proponents claims that bupe is a safer alternative for those with an addiction–a disease–and that using the prescription can help keep withdrawal under control, prevent the use of overdose, and limit the rates of diseases and injuries related to using illegal opioids, like heroin.

Of course no death equates to a good number, but many proponents point to the fact that buprenorphine was suspected in only 420 deaths since 2003, while other opioid medications lead to 15,500 deaths annually. Proponents claim that, due to the drug’s milder effects and use as a treatment for opioid addiction, it is saving the lives of those people that would be overdosing on other forms of opiates.

With any drug, however, there are risks and with opioids in particular, there is a risk for abuse and overdose. 

Those against the use of the drug claim that it’s use is becoming more prevalent as a street drug, for extended highs. According to the New York Times article, emergency room visits related to the nonmedical use of the opiate in 2013 were five times the amount for 2006. Likewise, many young children are coming into contact with the drug–with buprenorphine ingestion hospitalizing more children than any other medication in 2010 and 2011.

Other detractors claim that the physicians prescribing this medication can be more corrupt. While other opiate addiction treatments, like methadone, are only available from addiction clinics, doctors can prescribe buprenorphine as a drug for people to take at home. According to data from the New York Times, doctors licensed to prescribe the drug are often more likely to receive disciplinary action. In Arizona, these doctors are seven times more likely to have disciplinary records. In Nevada, of the 94 doctors authorized to prescribe the medication, almost 15% have been disciplined for professional violations (compared to approximately 2% for all doctors in the state).

Can a drug have all the answers? Yes and no.

As with any pain treatment plan, the onus of responsibility falls upon the entire healthcare team. Physicians need to be fully trained on addiction treatment and identification. Other healthcare professionals need to provide complementary care alternatives that help curb the use of opiate medications. Finally, the patient needs to research all possible alternatives and be responsible when prescribed any type of heavy narcotic.

What do you think? Are drugs like buprenorphine a boon or a crime to our communities? 

Image by Carbon NYC via Flickr

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