Heroin Treatment Too Limited, NIH Says

BETHESDA, MARYLAND--Heroin addicts need easier access to methadone, a panel organized by the National Institutes of Health announced at a press conference here today. The panel recommended that public and private health plans cover such treatment and that state and federal governments increase funding for treatment with the synthetic opiate and allow more doctors to prescribe it.

Methadone has been used to treat addicts for more than 3 decades, but only under strict federal and state laws that control dosage and require those dispensing the drug to have special licenses. Methadone affects the same pathways in the brain as heroin and other opiates, but more slowly. Therefore, it lessens an addict's cravings and alleviates withdrawal symptoms without causing a dramatic high. Although some addicts are eventually weaned from the drug, the panel stressed that addiction should be treated as a chronic disease--perhaps requiring a lifetime of treatment.

After hearing expert opinions on the costs of addiction and on available treatments and their effectiveness, the 12-member panel concluded that methadone--combined with counseling and other support--should be greatly expanded to include more of the estimated 600,000 heroin addicts in the United States. Methadone "is the best treatment available," said panel chair and psychiatrist Lewis Judd of the University of California School of Medicine, San Diego.

The group recommended that current regulations on dosage and special licensing be lifted, so that more doctors in private practice could treat opiate-addicted patients. The panel's report states that worries about abuse of the drug and illicit sales have been exaggerated.