Serious drug addiction is a problem that afflicts more than 10 million Americans. The grip of hardcore drugs like heroin and cocaine is so intense that relapse rates are staggering. So far, rehabilitation programs have had limited success, and dropout rates high.
Last year, scientists developed the first new drug since Methadone to treat drug addiction. Called Suboxone (buprenorphine), this little orange pill can be prescribed by your doctor and is available at any neighborhood pharmacy. Suboxone blocks opiate receptors in the brain, which means even if you shoot up you don’t get high. This offers new hope for addicts; instead of standing in line at an impersonal Methadone clinic, you can go to a doctor you like and trust who can guide you through the struggles without the old fix.
Suboxone loosens the grip that opiates have on the brain; the only catch is . . . you have to want to take it. I hope it will motivate addicts to see therapists who can help them find a new path through the hard times.
Scientists are using another drug that can loosen an addictive grip of another kind. Some people are psychologically addicted to re-living old traumatic events like post-war syndromes, sexual abuse, domestic violence, vehicular accidents, sudden death and natural disasters. The current psychiatric nomenclature calls this Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD sufferers can’t get rid of old tapes in their brains that keep them trapped in the past. This diagnosis, used only since 1980, is a rapidly growing diagnostic category affecting an estimated 5% of all Americans (13 million people).
Such psychological addictions may be mediated by a different mechanism and affect a different part of the brain than opiate addiction, but the strength of its grip is no less intense. A handful of psychiatrists in the United States have recently been allowed to do human research on PTSD sufferers using the drug Ecstasy (MDMA). Preliminary studies suggest it may have a profound therapeutic effect. Psychiatrists say it helps people move beyond the traumatic events; patients get more comfortable in seeing themselves where they are now rather than where they’ve been.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has fought against this research. It puts Ecstasy in the same legal category as heroin. DEA scientists say Ecstasy alters the shape of brain cells, may cause permanent harm, and affects memory. But nobody knows for sure; there is no evidence that it produces such results used in a therapeutic environment, for a time-limited period. This is the same argument that the government has used against advocates of medicinal marijuana.
I am of the opinion that if we can loosen an addiction’s grip on the mind, then patients and society are better off. All growth is about moving beyond the things that enslave us — old certainties that keep us from facing the truth of who we are now. If Suboxone and Ecstasy can help us in that pursuit, I say go for it.