Heroin abuse plagues many of our communities, bringing drug-related crime and violence and tearing families apart. Roughly 1 million people in the United States are addicted to heroin, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
There are no easy or quick solutions to this epidemic, but effective treatment programs can and must play an integral role as we fight back. In recent years, a new anti-addiction medicine called buprenorphine has revolutionized the way we treat heroin addiction, and Congress recently acted to make it more widely available.
One of the difficulties in the fight against drug abuse has been a lack of effective treatments. This was especially true for recovering heroin users, who for many years depended on methadone, itself an addictive drug that was dispensed only in centralized clinics often located far from those seeking treatment.
However, in the early 1990s I learned of buprenorphine, widely known as "bup," which drastically improves the way we treat heroin addiction. Bup functions as a drug "blocker," suppressing the craving for heroin and other opiate drugs, including prescription painkillers. To learn more, I visited drug treatment centers and research labs and worked to foster a national dialogue on addiction and treatment.
In 2000, the bipartisan Drug Addiction Treatment Act, which I sponsored with a Republican colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, authorized physicians to prescribe and dispense bup in their private offices pending approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which came in 2002.
DATA permitted physicians to dispense bup if they had received the specialized training required under DATA, were able to refer patients to counseling and other related services, and agreed to treat no more than 30 patients at a time.
This year, I hosted a symposium with Hatch that brought together physicians, health policy experts and patients to review the results of the first three years of office-based bup treatment.
Overwhelmingly, experts agreed that bup has successfully helped many people rehabilitate their lives. A survey required by DATA and completed by the Department of Health and Human Services found that bup has been effective and well-received among patients, shown minimal adverse effects and increased the availability of medication-assisted treatment programs.
Some of the most dramatic portions of the symposium came during the testimony from patients whose lives have turned around since being introduced to bup.
One of these patients was a college student in Boston who spent more than three years in the grips of heroin addiction. During that time, she underwent methadone detox 10 times- 10!- before bup helped her to feel "normal for the first time in three and a half years." She returned to school a short time later, has been on the dean's list ever since and is on track to graduate this spring.
The Senate symposium also highlighted a troublesome limitation on the use of bup. Too many physicians have been forced to deny treatment to potential patients because they are already at the 30-patient limit.
This was a tragic and arbitrary limitation for thousands of Americans who could benefit from bup, so Congress recently passed an amendment I authored with Senator Hatch to increase the limit to 100 patients per physician. The president is expected to sign it into law this year.
With this important change, which will more than triple the number of patients with access to bup in their physicians' offices, we are closer to fully realizing the lifesaving, family-saving and community-saving potential of bup. Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.