Methadone policy review to improve addicts' treatment

Patient drinking methadone
Image caption Methadone is one part of the Scottish government's drugs policy

Ministers have ordered a review of the way heroin addicts are treated.

It will gather evidence on substitute drugs such as methadone, and is part of the Scottish government's national drugs strategy.

It emphasises recovery from addiction - rather than the previous policy allowing addicts to use alternatives to heroin to stabilise their lives.

It is hoped the review will help doctors offer a full range of treatments, including methadone.

Since the 1980s, methadone has been at the heart of the drug treatment strategies of successive governments.

'Parked on methadone'

It has been heavily criticised as a "one-size fits all" approach to a complex problem.

Many recovering users complain they are 'parked' on methadone for years with no further treatment.

Other drugs can be prescribed to help addicts kick their habit.

They include buprenorphine (Subutex), buprenorphine and naloxone (Suboxone), diamorphine (pharmaceutical heroin) or dihydrocodeine for drug treatment.

But methadone, with an estimated 24,507 patients receiving it on prescription, is the most common.

The review, to be headed by the chief medical officer, Sir Harry Burns, will include independent experts from the Scottish Drugs Strategy Delivery Commission.

Its aim is to consider objectively the role of opiate replacement therapy (ORT) in the treatment of substance misuse.

Sir Harry said: "We know that opiate replacement therapies stabilise the lives of people seeking to address their drug addictions.

"This group brings together great expertise, and its work will give us a clearer picture of how these therapies are being used across Scotland."

The government's policy, 'The Road to Recovery' announced in 2008, aims to ensure users are no longer dependent on any drug including methadone.

Consult parties

Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham said ORT had saved thousands of lives in Scotland.

"However, the Scottish government is clear that prescribed drug treatment is not, and cannot be, the only treatment option available on the pathway to recovery," she added.

"People have a right to a full range of treatment and support options and to decide in consultation with professionals, what is best for them."

The government said between April 2011 and March 2012 prescribed drug treatment - including methadone - was less than 20% of treatment options started.

The expert group has been asked to consider objectively the evidence supporting the role of ORT in the treatment of substance misuse.

This includes consulting all political parties before it makes its recommendations to the government and the Scottish Parliament.

It is expected to report in Spring, 2013.

The move has been welcomed by drugs workers.

David Liddell, director of Scottish Drugs Forum (SDF) said: "It is unfortunate that methadone seems to have become something of a political football.

"The numbers on methadone have been used as a sign that the strategy is not working.

"This analysis is simplistic when a more measured and sophisticated debate could make a useful contribution."

He said politicians needed to think more deeply about why people turn to drugs - and what responses society can make.

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